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May 27, 2016

Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms by Arsalan Iftikhar


Given the horrible rhetoric we've been hearing from various sources during this election year (2016) in the United States, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, a new book from human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar published by Sky Horse Publishing, couldn't be more timely. Television viewers might be familiar with Iftikhar as the "The Muslim Guy" - as he calls his website - CNN and other major networks haul out after every so-called Islamic incident for comment.
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"Scapegoats" is in part a distillation of the message he tries to present during these spots - a small group of insane idiots don't represent the majority of Islam. However, as his voice always seems to become lost in maelstrom of sensationalism and fear mongering television seems to delight in - what sells better than fear and mayhem? - this book offers readers a chance to hear his arguments without distraction.

If you think this book is only going to be about Donald Trump and his ilk, you'll be in for a big surprise. Sure it mentions the usual hate mongers and supposed charitable foundations who fund them, but Iftikhar also points out some of the even more insidious attempts to smear Muslims.

One of the most noxious was Congressman Peter King's decision to hold congressional hearings called "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response". Very rightly Iftikhar likens this to Congressional witch hunts of the past and says it legitimized singling out a segment of the American population and deeming them suspect because of their religious beliefs - beliefs that are protected by the American Constitution.

Iftikhar quotes Richard Clarke, who worked for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as a counterterrorism czar, as warning this type of inquest would aid America's enemies. "To the extent that they (the hearings) are the object of fear-mongering, it will only serve Al Qaeda's ends", by wrongfully portraying that America is somehow at war with Islam.

However, it's not just conservatives who Iftikhar takes issue with. It's also those so called liberals who hide their fear and hatred behind supposed concern for civil rights and liberties. Those who do their best to make martyrs out the drawers of obscene cartoons and purveyors of hate speech.

He doesn't say the killings at the Charlie Hebedo offices were justified by any means. At the same time he doesn't see them, or the right wing Danish newspaper who published the infamous cartoons of Mohammad, as the great defenders of free speech everyone has made them out to be. How would people have reacted if those publications ran obscene cartoons of Jesus? (The Danish newspaper actually refused to run cartoons of Jesus by saying they wouldn't appeal to their readership)

People can say Muslims shouldn't be so sensitive to people making fun of them or shouldn't be allowed to oppress the free expression of ideas. Yet no one seems to raise much of a fuss when conservative Christians pressure advertisers into dropping support for TV shows they don't like or having books removed from libraries and school districts.

Iftikhar actually does say he thinks Muslims should learn to ignore these obviously deliberate provocations. While he may not like what the cartoons depict, he also doesn't agree with any of those who think they should take to the streets in protest against them. Call it hate speech, explain why these sorts of things are offensive, but aside from that don't give them the attention they desire.
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Iftikhar also deals with how the media differs in its depiction of similar crimes committed by non-Muslims. How is it that someone who opens fire on the clients and staff of an abortion clinic in the name of his God is not a Christian terrorist? Or a white man who walks into an African American church and shoots nine people isn't called a white terrorist? Yet when two people of Muslim background indiscriminately kill people, including Muslims, as happened in San Bernardino California, the media are quick to label it an act of Islamic terrorism even though the couple in question had no connections to any terror groups.

Scapgoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms is a reasoned and passionate defence against the hate filled rhetoric which has been filling American airwaves and print since September 11 2001. In it Iftikhar shows not only how unreasonable the calls for restrictions on Islam are, but how they contravene the American constitution - Freedom of Religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

He also does a fine job of showing how Americans are actually aiding and abetting their enemies through the rhetoric of hate. By making it look like America, from the government down to the media, are attacking Muslims, they give ammunition to those who would whip up support for armed attacks against Americans all over the world.

Unfortunately Iftikhar is only one voice in a very loud wilderness. While he does his best to write in as direct and straightforward manner as possible, his arguments can't be reduced down to a thirty second sound bite. Whether or not the people who need to read this book will be bothered to, or whether it will change anybody's mind about the subject, is questionable. This is a well written and passionate book defending reason and rationality. But the world is no longer a rational or reasonable place.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms)

February 5, 2016

Book Review: Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2015 by Richard Hell


As its title suggest Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014 from Soft Skull Press is a collection of essays, critiques, and assorted other articles and remarks by Richard Hell. While Hell was initially known as the front man for such seminal New York City bands as Television, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers, he's also a poet, novelist, and a essayist.
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Aside from his personal artistic achievements, Hell is also a keen and intelligent observer of the arts and has written and spoken about everything from pop culture to the avant-garde in film, poetry, and the visual arts. He's also been closely associated with some of the foremost contributors to pop culture and art in and around New York City since the early 1970s. All of which gives him the awareness to put his observations in an historical and social context.

Reading Hell's work is an object lesson in being a critic. He makes no secrets of his personal biases or opinions, but still strives to be as fair as possible to the work he's talking about. His writings on film are a perfect example. He makes no bones of his preference for the work of people like Jean Luc Goddard to more mainstream work, but he's still able to critique a Hollywood movie fairly based on its own merits. He judges all art in this manner - by seeing how well it stands up to the standards set by works of a similar style and form.

What makes these articles even more interesting in Hell's personal knowledge of many of the creators. His writings on authors like Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries and The Petting Zoo) are made that much more interesting by his personal recollections of the person behind the work. We gain not only a deeper understanding of the artist in question, but we also begin to see their work in a different, more personal, light.

Of course, not all of the articles are going to be of interest to everyone, in fact some might even find some the work discussed in the book disturbing. However, art is not always a comfortable blanket we wrap around ourselves - it should make us ask questions and provoke a response. The aesthetic appreciation of a piece art extends far beyond whether we "like" it.

While Hell never comes out and says this directly, the diversity and range of expression he writes about in Massive Pissed Love gradually bring this point home to us. Art is not created to please us, but meant to challenge us to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Remember, works we now consider acceptable, the paintings of Picasso for example, were once scorned and ridiculed.
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While some of the articles in this book might be inaccessible to some, his writings on popular music are sure to appeal to most. One of my favourites is the piece comparing The Rolling Stones with the Velvet Underground - "The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones". He examines the albums each group released during the same time frame - the time the Velvets existed - 1966 -1970. (The Velvets' first public appearance was in '65 and their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, wasn't released until '67 but was recorded in '66 at the same time the Stones recorded Aftermath)

Not only is the article a in depth and careful analysis of both bands' output giving you a deeper understanding of their musical significance and appreciation for their work, its also highly entertaining. Lacking the pretentious bullshit language these types of articles usually end up being couched in, it becomes an honest and candid examination of two bands who seem to be at completely opposite ends of the pop music spectrum.

Massive Pissed Love is not arranged chronologically, rather arranged as to how the articles fit into the three categories of the title. Some are long - "Massive" - some angry in tone - "Pissed" - and others full of adoration for their subject - "Love". As Hell says in his introductory note "It was to dull just to divide it by subject matter". One thing you can be sure of, this book is never dull. Contrary, intelligent, opinionated and perhaps to some people's minds controversial, but always lively and stimulating. If you care at all about modern art and culture this is a must read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: 'Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014' by Richard Hell)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

July 6, 2013

Interview: Alex Cox - Author of The President and the Provocateur


Alex Cox is best known as the director of the films Sid and Nancy and Repo-Man. However, anyone who has seen either of those movies will know he's both an astute observer and intelligent commentator on both society and politics. It was the combination of those two elements which piqued my interest in his newest book, his third to date, The President and the Provocateur, an in depth examination into the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the title suggests the book also deals with the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the assassination and then in turn assassinated before he could stand trial.

With 2013 being the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, November 23 1963, all the questions surrounding the two killings will once again come out into the open. For while the official word has always been Oswald both killed Kennedy and acted alone, there have been countless arguments over the years disputing this theory. Cox's book is not just another conspiracy theorists rantings, it is a carefully put together, thoughtful and articulate history of both men, the times they lived through and the events surrounding the assassination. The picture he pieces together is of a President surrounded on all sides by powerful people who have a lot to gain from his death.

After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Cox a few questions about what he wrote and how he came to write the project. I sent him the following questions by email and reprinted his answers verbatim without any editing. I hope this interview will convince of the integrity of his work and his motivations for writing the book in the first place. He has no axe to grind, nor does he openly support one theory over the other, save to call into doubt the official line of Oswald did it. His concern is to find the truth, and for us to want to find the truth as well.


You're best known as a film director, why the switch in media? Aside from the obvious technical ones, how did your process differ in approaching this project from when you prepare for a film?
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I'm a writer, too. I've written about 40 screenplays and published two books before this one. So it isn't really a switch in media. Books and films complement each other and are equally worthwhile! The process of writing a book is more solitary than making a film, which is a group
activity. But both involve preproduction, production, editing, and a deadline.

It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, why do you think the subject is still relevant or people will still be interested in it?

It's certainly relevant or Hollywood wouldn't be putting a lot of money into a Tom Hanks film called Parkland in an attempt to convince us that the Warren Commission was right. Nobody believes that story any more - at least, no one who has researched the assassination - but as November 22 approaches we'll see a lot of media energy and corporate money invested in expensive efforts to convince us that Oswald killed the President all on his own. Errol Morris is already making videos for the New York Times with that goal in mind. Oswald - lone assassin! It's the one think Noam Chomsky and Bill O'Reilly can agree on.

The murder of President Kennedy, in broad daylight, by riflemen who got away with the crime, sent a powerful message to the political and media class. Careers were made - think Dan Rather, think Arlen Spector - by those who supported the official version, no matter how ridiculous it was. The theft of the democratic franchise in 1963 still hasn't been addressed. It needs to be, and those who profited from it need to be exposed.

You not only spent a considerable amount of time on Kennedy and Oswald's biographies, you give quite a detailed history of the postwar era leading up to Kennedy's presidency. Why was it important to provide this background and historical context?

Because who knows this stuff? I grew up in this period but if you were born in 1990 you might need a little background info on HUAC, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the Cuban revolution

It was quite frightening to read about the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff towards nuclear war and how they tried to manipulate both President Eisenhower and Kennedy into believing America could win such a war. Was this mindset limited to them, or was this a widespread popular belief at the time?

In the 1950s and 1960s the US military really did believe that a nuclear war was "winnable" and that a surprise nuclear attack on Russia was the very best policy. They even had a date for it - December 1963 - and pushed both Eisenhower and Kennedy to greenlight the surprise atomic attack. To their great credit, both Presidents refused to do it. Today we know that even a "limited" nuclear war (Israel vs. Pakistan, India vs. China, whatever) would cause massive firestorms and a nuclear winter. We would all die. But this wasn't known in the 60s and we have
to be very grateful that Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had strong characters and were able to say no to the fruit salad. Would Clinton or the Bushes or Obama have stood up to the Joint Chiefs so forcefully?

It might be hard for people today to understand the virulence of the opposition to integration or how governors of individual states could be so outspoken in their opposition of the federal government and the law. How were they able to get away with it under both Eisenhower and Kennedy?
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In Civil Rights terms, both Eisenhower and Johnson were more forceful than Kennedy. As a Democrat, Kennedy felt he had to appease the racist element within his own party -- egregious characters but high-ranking Democratic senators. Johnson came from Texas and whatever his faults he wasn't a racist: he'd already lost the Blue Dogs' support by joining the Kennedy ticket. He was also more interested in domestic politics than Jack Kennedy was.

Kennedy was considered a fairly conservative Democrat, in fact you mention how Rockefeller, a Republican, was actually more liberal than Kennedy. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Joe McCarthy was an old family friend and he brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war by blockading Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships from landing missiles. So how did he manage to alienate the ultra right so badly?

Any support for Civil Rights was going to alienate the ultras. They hated Lyndon Johnson, too. But Johnson was politically very canny: his career was financed by a big military contractor, Brown and Root. He gave them the Vietnam War in return. Kennedy humiliated the heads of US Steel, fired the top ranks of CIA and the Joint Chiefs, took charge of printing US currency, and threatened the oil industry with the loss of serious tax breaks. He also encouraged violent Cuban terrorist groups and then deserted them. And he was a Catholic! So there were many
reasons the ultra right disliked him.

You mention a variety of groups and individuals on the right who were both very outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy and his policies and their desires to remove him from the White House. With all the evidence against these people, why was it so easy to convince the public a communist/marxist was responsible for killing the president?

Was the public ever convinced? I don't think so. The media were speedily convinced, but that was a matter of saying what their bosses told them to say. When Kennedy was killed, the general assumption was that right-wing gunmen had done it, and that the Dallas police were in on it and connived in the murder of the "only" suspect.

If Oswald wasn't the one who assassinated Kennedy, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to set him up as the fall guy. Why him in particular?

Oswald was an intelligence agent - an FBI COINTELPRO infiltrator of left-wing groups, or an IRS infilitrator of right-wing groups, or both - and a former CIA or Naval Intelligence spy, wouldn't he be the ideal fall-guy? He had been "sheep-dipped" so often and so obviously that any agency connected to him was bound to run for cover, and destroy evidence, as we know his FBI handler, Hosty, did.

In order for the assassination to be carried out and for Oswald to end up taking the blame it meant the plot would have had to include people in almost every level of government. The intelligence agencies, the military, the Dallas Police force, the Secret Service and others would have had to be in on it. In the book you provide plenty of evidence in support of this widespread corruption and treason, but the question remains, how could it have happened? How could so many people charged with the protection of the President, who swore oaths of loyalty to their country, or have positions of trust, be traitors?
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In an operation like this, how many people know what's going on? Very very few. Some people were tasked to impersonate a guy, on a rifle range or at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Some people were set to be arrested and held in custody while the riflemen escaped. The riflemen (if they were US citizens) were definitely traitors. The Secret Service men who failed to ride on the President's car, permitted the deadly parade route, and rearranged the order of the motorcade, were clearly culpable and guilty of treason. The Joint Chiefs, when they proposed the Northwoods Operation - false-flag terrorist ops on US soil, involving the murder of US citizens - were guilty of treason, too. No matter how many loyalty oaths they signed!

You've had access to what seems substantial amounts of research and documentation on individuals and organizations connected to either Oswald or the assassination in some way. Some witness statements have always been available and were ignored by the Warren Commission or given less weight than others, but has all the information in your book always been available for those willing to ask the right people and the right questions or is some of it coming out now due to access to information laws?

A lot of information came out as a result of the ARRB, itself inspired by the JFK film and the "Free The Files" movement. Some information came from KGB archives, care of Boris Yeltsin. And some is genuinely new information - the "Hunter Leake" story, for instance. And much info in the book was developed, over many years, by researchers writing for The Third Decade and The Fourth Decade. There is always more to be learned, and leads to be pursued!

If this information has always been out there why hasn't there been more of an outcry over the obvious errors committed by the Warren Commission?

There has been lots of outcry. It is just ignored by the major media.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book? How do you hope readers react to the book?

I hope it makes the story a little clearer, though it is by no means clear! And that the terribly bad photographic evidence used to convict Oswald after his death can be recognised for the fakery it is.

As a conclusion you suggest America needs to consider forming the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation committees formed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in order to deal with questions people have about events in recent history, the Kennedy assassination being only one of them. Why do you think such a committee is necessary? What do you think it can accomplish, and finally do you think there's any chance of one ever being formed?

There has been such a committee in the US already - in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a massacre of trade unionists and communists occurred in the late 1970s. If we want it, why can't we have it? Whose permission do we have to ask?


Whose permission indeed? If we want the truth about the death of Kennedy, or about anything else we might have doubts about, it is our right as citizens of whichever country we live in to demand it. Governments hide information behind the screen of national security with out ever having to justify themselves. In times of open warfare this argument might have merit, but for events which happened fifty years ago there is no longer any excuse for protecting anyone or anybody. No one should be above the law no matter who they know, how much money they have, or the position of power they hold. A country is not a democracy until this is true in fact and deed.

As long as people believe their government is capable of lying to them than how can that government be said to be of the people? Some people say we get the government we deserve, however it can also be said we get the government we ask for. Shouldn't we be asking for so much more? Cox's book ends with a simple request, a request for the truth. Is that too much to ask for?

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Interview: Alex Cox Author of The President and the Provocateur)

January 14, 2013

Music Site Review: Concert Vault


There was once a time when the only way you could get hold of the pop music you liked was by visiting a record store. If you didn't own either a record player or a tape deck of some kind the only way to listen to your favourite music was the radio. Which meant you were at the mercy of whatever your local station played. So if you didn't like the top 40 of the day you were usually out of luck. As for seeing your favourite band perform, that was only possible if they happened to go on tour and show up in your home town. If they were really popular they might show up on a television variety show and lip sync to one or two of their songs.

Prior to the 1980s, MTV and Much Music there was precious little live music on television in North America. The one or two shows, The Midnight Special and Rock Concert, to feature bands in concert were on late at night and the sound was usually crap as it was coming through your television's single tinny speaker. While advances in video and digital technology gave us more access to music through an increased variety of sources, we were still limited by the technology available for playing and transmitting. If you were lucky enough your television might have been able to hook up to your stereo, but the signal being broadcast was still only mono so you weren't much further ahead in terms of quality.

Everything changed with the Internet. First there was file sharing with sites like Napster allowing people to upload and download their favourite music. When the record companies panicked at the thought of losing control over their product they moved to quickly shut these sites down until they could figure out how to get their piece of the pie. Now the dust has settled on that front, there are a seemingly infinite number of sites out there allowing you to download and stream music (listen to online) or watch videos and concerts. However, like in the bad old days of top 40 radio, the majority of them seem to fixate on what is popular. If you have somewhat eclectic tastes finding one source to satisfy a craving for music of all genres and from all eras is as difficult as it ever has been.
Bill Sagan .jpg
Thankfully there are some sites out there which take into account not everybody can be fit into the same round peg. One of the newest to launch specializes in audio and video of live concerts of all genres of popular music. Concert Vault is the brain child of Bill Sagan, best known as the CEO and founder of the music site Wolfgang's Vault. As with Wolfgang's Vault the bulk of the material on Concert Vault is taken from the archives of arguably the man who was the greatest promoter of popular music in the 20th century, Bill Graham. Sagan purchased the archive a number of years ago and has been finding new ways of putting it in the public's hands ever since.

At first glance Concert Vault is a little overwhelming. There are literally so many options available to a user it's difficult to know where to begin. However, Sagan and company have gone to a lot of effort to try and give you a variety of ways to experience the site. There's no way to make this embarrassment of riches easy to navigate, but if you take a couple of deep breaths and a few moments to get over your excitement, you'll find they have done the best job possible under the circumstances. First of all they've divided content up into eight distinct channels: rock, blues, jazz, country, folk/bluegrass, indie and interviews. There is also a separate channel for video only, which is itself divided up into the seven channels mentioned above. Of course you can also browse the site by performers through their A - Z index or check out their variety of themed playlists which gathers together selections from the vault.

Of course you always have the option of creating your own playlist or even queuing up a variety of concerts to play one after another in the "Queue" section of the site. While I'm not thrilled with sites that force you to use their own download managers (with the recent warnings about the threat to Java Script they might want to find another format anyway) I can understand their desire to control access and why they've chosen to go this route. The manager was easy to install and use and I had no problems downloading the concert I wanted (The Talking Heads live at Heatwave 1980 - brilliant, first introduction of their extended funk line up)

The first thing you should do is probably purchase a membership. While not necessary to stream product, it does ensure you unlimited access. You can either buy a monthly membership for $2.99 or pay an annual fee of $29.99. For that price you are given full access to the entire archive - non-members are limited in what they can view and listen to, unlimited streaming on all web browsers and mobile devices, special curated features and playlists for each of the seven music channels, the most you'll ever pay to download anything will be $5.00 and an annual credit of $24.00 against all purchases made at the Wolfgang's Vault Store. An extra $20.00 annually buys you a VIP membership. Honestly the only reason you'd want this is if you're planning on purchasing memorabilia from the store as it buys you a 10% discount and free domestic ground shipping.

Still the annual fee is a bargain even when you factor in having to maybe pay $5.00 for downloading an entire concert. Consider the fact it will cost you a minimum of something like $9.99 to download an album of music from iTunes and you can see how inexpensive this is. On top of that you're going to be downloading concerts you're not going to find anywhere else in the world - literally. Where else can you download the last concert ever given by the Sex Pistols and then flip a page and listen to Bill Monroe or Miles Davis.

What's even better is this isn't just a site for Boomers looking to relive their youth by downloading a Grateful Dead concert. Concert Vault also has wide variety of independent bands and you can listen to everybody from The Cowboy Junkies, REM to The Old 97's. Or check out some of the newer bands you might not have heard of before like Allah -Las, Alabama Shakes or Winter Sounds.

However, what makes Concert Vault special is the depth and breadth of historical recordings it puts at your disposal. To make a full inventory of what's available on the site would take weeks, but judging by the couple of skims I've made of its content I doubt you'll find a more complete collection of popular music in all its myriad forms anywhere else on the Internet. While some of the rarer selections might not be as pristine as we're used to when it comes to audio or video quality, a great many of them pre-date the digital era. Some of them, like a video recording of The Mink DeVille Band from 1978 in San Francisco, make up for their drawbacks in quality simply because of the opportunity they represent to see favoured artists at the height of their abilities when no other records of them exist.

I'm not an aficionado of online music sites, but from what I've seen of what's out there Concert Vault is definitely one of the best. In terms of organization, ease of use and diversity of content it would be hard for any site to compete. If you love music and want the opportunity to hear your favourite artists in concert without having to leave the comfort of your living room, this site will be a dream come true.


(Article first published as Music Site Review: Concert Vault on Blogcritics.)

December 12, 2012

Television Review: The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour


Every year around this time there always seems to be something new being released associated with The Beatles. Those of you not old enough to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for over forty years. To be honest with even for those of us who were around it's easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don't listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don't even think I own a single one of their records, so I don't have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.

However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I'm struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.

Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day's Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
Cover Magical Mystery Tour .jpg
Thanks to the good people at the Public Broadcasting Systems' (PBS) show Great Performances Friday December 14 2012 will not only see the broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour at 10:00 pm, directly preceding the movie viewers will also have the chance to see the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. Airing at 9:00 pm it will you in on the back story behind the film. (Please check local listings for dates and times) If you miss this airing of the film, don't worry, because this new remastered version is also being made available for sale in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.

I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience will be we're not familiar with the concept of the "Coach Trip" - climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, this was a very common outing especially among working and middle class families like those the members of The Beatles grew up in. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles' childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.

Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction, it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.

If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures. They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their head. The grand finale to the movie with them singing and dancing to "Your Mother Should Know" while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney's is black - which was probably used to fuel the "Paul is dead rumours" that began circulating soon after) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.

As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, "I'm The Walrus", "Fool On The Hill", "Blue Jay Way", "Your Mother Should Know" and the title song "Magical Mystery Tour" were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour.jpg
While people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in on the significance of the film in the documentary, as well as some of those who were actually in the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr. From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney's idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.

While the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he's talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing "Blue Jay Way". He says, in almost an aside something along the lines of various "medicines" available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.

If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week don't be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you'll find yourself having a good time. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn't stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?

To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967 it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour - even today I can think of any number of people who wouldn't consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you've never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.

(Article first published as Television Review: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour on Blogcritics)

September 4, 2012

Television Review: Wallander lll


For some reason every time I hear Sweden mentioned I can't help but recall a series of ads that ran in the 1970s. I think they must have been put out by the Canadian government, but they claimed the average sixty year old Swede was in as good as if not better shape than a thirty year old Canadian. I guess the Health Ministry was going through one of their fitness crazes and wanted Canadians to exercise more. How much truth there was in the statement about the sixty year old Swede I still don't know to this day, but for the longest time he, ABBA and hockey players was all Sweden meant to me. Now I can add something else to my wealth of knowledge about this northern Scandinavian country, they've produced at least one brilliant writer of mystery stories.

Starting Sunday September 9 2012 at 9:00 PM and continuing through September 16 and 23 you can see proof of this on your local Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) (check local listings for dates and times of course). For those three weeks will see the airing of the latest adaptation of Henning Mankell's novels as part of the Mystery segment of Masterpiece. Wallander lll sees the return of the troubled Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) as he deal with three murder cases, "An Event in Autumn", "The Dogs of Riga" and "Before the Frost", which are not only brutal but wreck further turmoil on his already fragile emotions.
Wallander lll On Mystery.jpg
If you've read any of Mankell's books or seen either of the previous two series, you'll be familiar with Wallander and what he's witnessed in the past. However, even if you've never seen or read anything that's come before, it won't take you long to see the emotional damage he's suffered in the past. Even the hope generated by his starting a new relationship and moving into a house with his partner and her son isn't enough to prevent him from shutting himself down emotionally when partially decomposed body of a young woman is found on his new property. With one wreck of a marriage behind him, and his relationship with his adult daughter tenuous at best, Wallander had hoped for a new start. However, he feels it can't bode well for anything when it turns out the body was the victim of murder.

Things go from bad to worse when a colleague is brutally injured during the course of the investigation. Not only does he feel responsible for what happened to her, when another young women turns up dead, a friend of the first victim, he feels guilty because she wouldn't be dead if he had been able to catch the killer. Even successfully solving the case does nothing to salvage his new relationship. His partner can't understand why he takes everything so personally nor why he can't leave his work at work. He may hate what he sees and the job might cause irreparable damage to his psyche, but his emotional commitment to the job is what makes him such a good cop.

However we have to wonder in watching the ensuing episodes how he'll ever survive without having a breakdown. The episode airing on September 16 2012, "The Dogs of Riga", sees him travelling to the capital of Latvia, Riga, investigating a drug smuggling operation. The bodies of two men bearing tattoos associated with the Russian criminal world are found in an inflatable dinghy adrift in the Baltic Sea separating Latvia and Sweden. Not only did the two men bear the signs of having been tortured to death the raft was stuffed with drugs.

Travelling to Riga Wallander finds himself being pulled into the murky world of corruption which seems to have sprung up all over the former Soviet Union. In Latvia he discovers a country split along ethnic lines between native Latvians and Russian nationals who settled there during the communist era. Not able to speak the language and unsure who to trust, his hotel room is bugged (but whether by the criminals or the cops he's not sure) and one cops doesn't hide the fact he used to be in the KGB.
Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander.jpg
While that case is bad enough with its corrupt officials and the brutal indifference to life he is witness to, "Before the Frost", the final episode airing on September 23 2012, is the one which has the most potential to break him. An old childhood friend of Wallander's daughter disappears after showing up at his house one night distraught and emotional. Unfortunately it's no coincidence that a series of fires started by an escaped psychiatric patient are happening at the same time. The fires are the tip of the iceberg as both the escapee and the friend of Wallander's daughter are members of a fanatical Christian cult. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying it's enough to make an atheist of you, or at least turn you off organized religion forever.

While the scripts are uniformly excellent and the support cast is formidable in its talent, if you've seen the previous two series you'll notice quite a few new faces among the detectives working with Wallander, the show is ultimately a showcase for the talents of Branagh in the lead role. I've been fortunate enough to have watched him since one of his first television appearances back in the 1980s. While I've never had any doubts about him being one of the finest actors of his generation, his performance as Wallander still leaves me slack jawed in wonder. He seems hopelessly overmatched by the world around him; rumpled, unshaven and constantly under slept and you wonder how he can make it through a day let alone deal with the cases that come his way. Yet every so often we see hints of the iron will and resolve beneath the surface keeping him going. Unlike others though, he doesn't try and pretend or hide the price he pays for being a cop who cares.

He makes an effort to leave the job behind when he's with those who aren't in the police force, but it's obviously an effort. He's awkward in social situations, doesn't know how to make small talk or be inconsequential. When his phone rings to summon him back to the world of murder it almost seems as though its a relief, as if he back on familiar territory again. Yet such is the mastery of Branagh's performance we can see he knows how wrong this is, but he doesn't know how to change. However, he does give us occasional glimpses of how things could be different. There are two moments, one in "Dogs of Riga" and one in "Before the Frost" when we see the potential for uncomplicated happiness which somehow has managed to survive. The smile that literally lights up Wallander's face on both occasions makes you realize he's not given up hope of there being something better, he just doesn't have many opportunities to experience reasons for believing in them.

Wallender lll is tough and gritty and in some ways as desolate as the Irish landscape that stands in for Sweden. While it probably only feels like it, but it seems as if almost the entire show takes place in overcast weather and the prominent colours in the camera's palate are shades of grey and dank blue. These are difficult shows to watch, not only because of the nature of the crimes being investigated, but because of the emotional toll we seen them exact on the lead character. As the title character Branagh gives the type of performance that is the stuff of legend. Other generations had Lawrence Oliver and Alec Guinness, but we have Kenneth Branagh, and this is some of his best work. Don't miss this opportunity to watch genius at work for three brief Sundays in September; September 9, 16 and 23 at 9:00 PM on your local PBS station.

(Article first published as Television Review: Wallander lll on Blogcritics.)

August 28, 2012

Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story


Over the years I've had the opportunity to see a variety of documentary movies on widely divergent subjects. However, the one thing all of them have had in common, are their desire to convince the audience of the importance of their topic. Unfortunately the very nature of the genre sometimes seems to work against their makers and far too often ends up rendering even the most interesting subject matter dull. For in their search for accuracy and authenticity many of them end up either being boring recitations of facts or endless interviews with experts. Film is a visual medium and unless there is something incredibly compelling about either the experts or the story they are relating, it can quickly become boring to watch footage of people simply talking.

In watching their most recent documentary movie its obvious to me that the people at Corner Of The Cave Media, especially director/producer/writer Brad Bernstein both understand this and take great pains to avoid falling into that trap. It's no wonder Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story has not only been made an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but been scheduled for three public screenings: Thursday September 6 2012 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 9:45 PM, Saturday September 8 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 9 at 9:30 AM and Saturday September 15 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 10 at 4:30 PM, with the premier coming on opening night of festival.
Poster The Tomi Ungerer Story - Far Out Isn't Far Enough.jpg
On the surface a documentary about an illustrator of children's books, poster artist and creator of various works of art, doesn't sound like the most stimulating of subjects. Perhaps if it were about somebody aside from Tomi Ungerer it might not have been very interesting. But, not only is the story of Ungerer's life and career fascinating, Ungerer himself is a wonder. On top of that Bernstein understands that even a documentary about a single person needs to have motion, as our focus wanders if we stare at the same thing for too long. So while we spend a great deal of time over the course of the movie with Ungerer, the interviews with him are broken up by animation sequences created from his art work, and by transporting the audience backwards and forwards in time using archival film footage, still photographs and samples of Ungerer's work from various periods in his life.

While over the course of the movie's ninety minute running time we are given Ungerer's life story from the time of his birth in Strasbourg France to the present in his homes in County Cork Ireland and Strasbourg, the narrative somehow defies the constraints of linear time. As Ungerer is describing what his life was like during the Nazi occupation of France during the 1940s we are looking at some of the drawings he made during that period. Not only do the illustrations make the memories extremely real, but as you listen to him speak you realize this period of his life is still very much alive for him. This is driven home when he talks about how his personal paranoia leads to him constantly dreaming about being arrested. Not only that but we see how the trauma of this period is reflected in his artwork down though the years, especially his political posters from the 1960s. For Ungerer the past lives on and the film makers have managed to somehow convey this in the way they have narrated his life and career.

What will be a surprise for a lot of people is that they've never heard of Tomi Ungerer. Especially when they find out about his career as a commercial artist and illustrator and writer of children's books in the 1950s and 1960s. He immigrated to America in 1956 and landed in New York City just as the need and interest in illustrations for magazines crested. With television in its infancy advertisers still relied on print media as their primary means of reaching consumers. So illustrators like Ungerer were in huge demand. It wasn't long before he branched out into the writing and illustrating of children's books.

According to his contemporaries interviewed for this movie; people like illustrator, playwright and novelist Jule Feiffer and, in one of the last interviews before his death, fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, Ungerer was one of the most remarkable artists they knew. Sendak went so far as to say, that without Ungerer's influence he doubts whether his most famous book, Where The Wild Things Are, would have ever existed. We hear about how Ungerer quickly became a favourite of the influential publisher of children's books at Harper Collins and his books were hugely successful. So what happened?
Tomi Ungerer.jpg
What happened was Ungerer was interested in more than illustrating children's books and as the 1960s progressed he branched out to reflect the growing social and political changes that were happening in America. First there were his posters with their blunt political statements about such hot topics as segregation and the war in Viet Nam. However it was interest in erotica that caused the most problems. While the pieces wouldn't even qualify as pornography today, the Puritan streak runs deep in America - one only needs to look at today's Republican Party for proof of that - and when it was discovered somebody who wrote and illustrated children's books was also drawing pictures of naked adults all hell broke loose. His books were removed from the shelves of every library in the country and he was comprehensively black listed. As of 1971he might as well have ceased to exist.

While neither the film makers nor Ungerer make the obvious comparison of likening what happened to him to what happened to work the Nazis deemed unacceptable in the 1940s, the parallels are unavoidable. For the second time in his life he must have felt like he was living in a totalitarian regime which wouldn't tolerate freedom of expression and somebody's work could be arbitrarily deemed "wrong". Is it any wonder the poor man is still plagued by paranoia and dreams of persecution and arrest? What's astounding is how in spite of what he has been through, he not only continues to produce art today, he is still as vital and interested in the world around him as he was when he started.

What's amazing about Far Out Isn't Far Enough is the people responsible for the film have made it every bit as interesting and exciting as if it were a feature film. You become so caught up in the story of this man's life, his art and his way of looking at the world he becomes larger than life. While you can't escape the fact Ungerer is talking into a camera and answering somebody's questions about this, that or the other, the wall that usually seems to exist between the subject of these films and you watching crumbles at some point in the proceedings. Director Bernstein is smart enough to know when you're filming a force of nature like Ungerer, you try to be as unobtrusive as possible and do your best to be nothing more than a conduit between your subject and the audience. Not only has he succeeding in creating an incredibly intimate portrait of this complex and intelligent man, he has done the world a great service by reintroducing us to the work of an artistic genius whose work has been ignored for far too long.

Thankfully Phaidon Press, has taken it upon itself to reissue Ungerer's titles previously black listed in America and not seen in book stores for more then forty years. Ungerer himself recently wrote his first new children's book since the early 1970s. It is to be hopped the combination of this film and his books being made available to the public again in North America will ensure he starts to gain some of the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the world of art. Tomi Ungerer is a brilliant light whose illumination we've been denied for far too long. This film gives us an indication of what we've been missing and hopefully whats still to come from one of the great creative minds of ours or any time.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on Blogcritics.)

June 18, 2012

European Cup 2012 - Discover The World's Most Popular Sport.


In spite of the conceit expressed by American baseball in calling its championship "World Series" and the hype surrounding American football's "Super Bowl" there are two events held every four years, alternating every two years, which can be more genuinely referred to as World and Super respectively. The Federation Internationale de Football Association's (FIFA) World Cup was last held in 2010 in the Republic of South Africa and the competing teams were from countries in every hemisphere on the planet. While The Union of European Football Associations' (UEFA) European Cup only features the best teams of Europe coming together every four years, the competition is if anything even more exciting than its larger compatriot.

After two years of qualifying games the top sixteen national teams in Europe spend three weeks playing intense matches to decide the championship. Unlike the World Cup where it always seems inevitable one of six teams will walk away with the win, in the European Cup there's more of a chance of one of the long shots, if not winning, then at least making their way through to the latter stages of the tournament. Unheralded countries like Greece and Turkey have surprised more famous sides in recent years, with the Greeks actually winning the cup in 2004. In 2008 things returned to something akin to form as perennial power Spain won the cup, though even that was considered something of a breakthrough as it came after years of the country's team failing to live up to expectations.

With Spain continuing its winning ways by taking home the 2010 World Cup they have to be considered one of the favourites in Euro2012. However, such is the fickle finger of fate they come into the tourney having lost their leading scorer and most experienced defender to injuries. In their first game against Italy, a one all draw, while they played their usual excellent ball control game they seemed to be lacking the ability to finish their passes off with quality shots on goal and showed some alarming weaknesses in their ability to defend against quick counter attacks by the Italians. Only the Italians inability to score on their chances prevented Spain from losing their opening match. However they looked much more impressive in their 4 - 0 result over, an admittedly outclassed, Republic of Ireland.

With one game remaining in the group stage for each team (The teams are divided into four groups of four with the top two teams in each advancing to the quarter finals after a round robin of three games. Each team is awarded three points for a win and one point for a tie) Spain still has to be considered one of the favourites, but they don't seem quite the sure thing to win as they did two years ago in South Africa. Still they are in better shape than other teams one normally thinks of as always in the running, and along with Italy should advance out of Group with no trouble. In Group B the Dutch are almost eliminated having lost their first two games. Portugal lost to Germany in their first game but redeemed themselves by defeating Denmark in their second and only need to beat the Dutch to advance. Denmark can still advance if Portugal loses and they either draw or defeat Germany. If they both lose it will come down to who has the best goal differential among the three as they will all end up with identical records.

While England and France are currently tied for first in Group D at four points co-host Ukraine are only one point behind. France showed flashes of their familiar brilliance in defeating the Ukraine 2 -0, but England was fortunate to defeat a weak Swedish side, and face the real risk of going home. Although the Brits only need a tie to advance, the Ukraine might be more than they can handle. Playing in front of a home audience with a chance of advancing out of the group stage for the first time since the end of Soviet Union, their talent will be augmented by a drive to succeed that will make them tough to beat. Neither side had an answer to France's ball possession but the Ukraine had a much easier time of it beating Sweden than the British and look to be the more dynamic side. As long as France doesn't do anything stupid they should have no problems defeating Sweden in their final match and winning the group.

Group A, made up of Russia, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, were considered the weak sister before start of play, in spite of Greece winning in 2004, being teams who have never been considered real powers in international soccer. Russia has had good teams in the past and it was assumed they would advance to the quarter finals with the other three fighting it out for the final spot. After the first two games everything looked like it was going according to prediction, and co-host Poland only had to beat the Czech Republic to advance. Well the beauty of this tournament is that strange and wondrous things can happen. Thanks to Russia's inability to take advantage of their numerous scoring chances Greece stunned them 1 - 0 in their final match to advance, giving them the dubious honour of facing the winner of Group B, most likely Germany. The Czech Republic followed closer to form by beating the Poles 1 - 0 and winning the group, and they will face the second place finisher in Group B - either Portugal or Denmark. (Holland are still alive mathematically but it would take a miracle for them to advance)

Unlike the group phase where games can end in ties, from the quarter finals on there has to be a winner. While that's great and usually makes for some exciting soccer, it also raises the ugly spectre of penalty kicks. If after regulation time and two overtime periods the match remains tied the game is decided by each team selecting five players and the side which scores the most by kicking the ball from the penalty spot, eighteen yards out from goal, wins. I've always found this to be a far too arbitrary way to end a game. However, even worse, is the fact there have been teams who have deliberately played the entire game with the goal of pushing it to penalty kicks. If you thought defensive hockey was bad, there is nothing quite as ugly as a soccer team who only plays defence. Let's hope nobody resorts to this tactic in the days to come.

While I'd question anybody who says the best players and teams in the world come from Europe (have they never heard of Lionel Messi or countries called Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Japan, all who have made their presence known internationally and play an exciting brand of soccer that can stand up to anything the Europeans can produce) with fewer weak teams qualifying than one sees in the World Cup nothing can be taken for granted. I'm sure the Greeks defeating Russia isn't the last upset will see this tournament. However, that being said, judging by play during the Group Stages, it still looks like the tournament is going to come down to one of the traditional four European powers, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb by saying of the four Spain is still the side to beat. They not only can control the ball with their pin point passing, as they showed against Northern Ireland, they can also bury their scoring opportunities.

At its best soccer has a rhythm all of its own. There's an ebb and a flow as the action moves up and down the field and as a side gradually builds an opportunity for a chance to score. Unlike the sports North Americans are used to with the instant gratification of the long pass for the touchdown or the home run shot that clears the bases, a goal in soccer can take ten minutes to develop. Watching teams like Spain or Italy work the ball into a position for taking a shot is to watch artistry in motion. I find it amazing that people who will gladly watch golf or curling on television can call soccer boring. As we come down to the final games in the group stage and move on into the sudden death playoffs in Euro 2012 you'll have the chance to see for yourself why outside of North America soccer is still the world's most popular sport.

(Article first published as Euro Cup 2012: Discover the World's Most Popular Sport on Blogcritics)

May 17, 2012

Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good By Kevin Smith


You know a book by Kevin Smith, a guy famous for making movies about "dick and fart jokes", is bound to be crude, lewd and rude. However what might surprise most people, especially those who believe he makes movies about dick and fart jokes and never look further than that, is beneath the bluster and foul mouth of a twelve year old boy from Jersey are a brain and a heart. As he himself says in his latest book, Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good published by Penguin Canada, as an overweight kid from Jersey he had to find a way to prevent himself from being made everybody's favourite punching bag. If people are pissing themselves laughing it's much harder for them to beat the crap out of you. So in many ways he's never stopped being that twelve year old kid trying to make us laugh.

Now most people who pick up a book by Smith already know what he's about and aren't about to be offended by anything he's got to say. The thing is that a lot of people who pick up this book in the hopes that's it just like the movies he used to make are going to be somewhat disappointed. Oh sure there's more use of the word pussy not in reference to the family cat than in most works of non-fiction and not many people dedicate their books to their wife's sphincter, yet even excesses along those lines aren't gratuitous. The book is exactly what the title claims it is, except just like his movies there's far more to it than you'd expect. As with the majority of Smith's work it's up to you what you take away from it. With his movies it was laugh at the puerile jokes, enjoy the gross out moments and appreciate the overall anarchy as epitomized by Jay and Silent Bob, or you can go a little deeper and dig his love for the misfits up on screen and the statement that makes.

Of course Smith would have you believe he's the biggest misfit of them all; an overweight, lazy dude from the armpit of the nation who managed to make it as an outsider in the ultimate insider industry. The thing is he's right. For all intents and purposes this is not somebody who should have been able to make a career in movies. His first movie was shot on a shoestring budget with a cast made up of friends and local community theatre actors. Clerks should have disappeared without a trace and Smith with it. However through sheer balls and faith in his own work he managed to secure a screening for it at Sundance which led to a distribution deal with the then kings of indie cinema Miramax. Maybe it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, but if he hadn't had the chutzpah to make the movie in the first place, to risk it all on a dream, none of it would ever have happened.
Cover Tough Shit By Kevin Smith.jpg
As you read through Tough Shit and listen to him recount the various stages of his career and what he considers the important turning points in his life, you're struck by the size of the risk he took in each of the incidences he describes. The other thing you realize is no matter how many self-depreciating remarks he might cast his own way, this is a guy who has great faith in his own abilities and the huge amount of courage required to bring his dream of doing what he loves to make a living come true. Of course he also has his own unique context which helps him keep things in perspective.

The opening chapter of the book is about his dad and three lessons that were to influence Smith junior's life. The first being the freaking miracle that out of all the sperm from his dad that ended up inside his mother, it was the one with his name on it that survived. The way Smith figures it winning that race with the odds so strongly stacked against you means you've already won half the battle. The second was his dad hated his job with a passion. Now most people would have accepted that as their lot in life and followed their old man's example of taking a job they hated to put bread on the table. Not Smith, he looked at how unhappy his dad was and thought there has to be something better, why can't you do what you love for a living? The final lesson he learned from his father was from how he died. His father died screaming in pain having a massive heart attack. The lesson Smith took from that was if that was his dad's reward for years of self-sacrifice and hating his job, than he might as well make as much a paradise for himself in this world as he can.

While that might sound like a sure fire recipe for self-indulgence, and maybe some can't see the difference between that and a life dedicated to self-expression, for Smith it provided the motivation for keeping as true to himself as possible. During the course of the book he describes what happened when he let his life drift off that path. The worst of those experiences was directing Bruce Willis in Cop Out. While it earned him the respect of executives of the studio he did the film for, and led to more offers of directing work, he realized that even if he never had to work with a prima donna like Willis again, simply directing somebody else's material wasn't for him. It would eventually turn into a job he would hate, or at least resent, and that's not what he had set out to do when he embarked upon finding a way of making a living doing what he loved.
Kevin Smith New Jersy Devil Fan.jpg
Smith is nothing if not honest. Throughout the entire book he's upfront with readers telling them there's nothing easy about the course he's chosen and if they want to emulate what he's doing they're in for a hard slog. This is the tough shit of the title, "Security, normalcy, convenience, protection, and identity are opiates you've gotta wean yourself off before you can be an individual. You can't stand out if you're blending in." Now that might sound easy but it has to be the hardest thing in the world to actually follow through on. He's talking about giving up everything from normal relationships to anything else you can think of that all of your friends will be doing.

Maybe that's why he's dedicated the book to such a specific part of his wife's anatomy. He goes into details for you in the chapter talking about her, but that's just his way of making the real point. Which is that he's been incredibly blessed not just because as he puts it "she's way out of my league" but because she willingly gave up her career as a journalist to join forces with him. That she allows him to be who he is warts and all and accepts that he won't change for anyone is a miracle and he knows it. Being an artist is an incredibly selfish endeavour and to find somebody willing to go along for the ride with you is fucking amazing cause they know they're never going to be first in your heart, they might tie for top spot but will never come out on top. If they asked you to chose between them and your art you'll either chose your art or hate them for the rest of your days.

The great thing about reading a Kevin Smith book is its like having a conversation. True it might be a bit one sided as you're hard pressed to get a work in edgewise when dealing with a book. Anyone who has ever listened to any of the commentary Smith includes with the DVDs of his movies, watched a DVD of his speaking tours, listened to any of his podcasts at Smodcast.com will understand what I'm talking about. He doesn't belabour a point or come across all heavy and intellectual, but still manages to make more sense and talk more intelligently about art, movies and life than ninety percent of the called self-help gurus out there. His recipe for happiness might not be right for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it all for their dream, it's a damn good one to follow.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith on Blogcritics.)

May 10, 2012

TV Review: Sherlock: Season Two


Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, Jeremy Brett and Robert Downy Jr. have each taken on the role and brought something indefinable to it. Each actor has brought the same character to life and left his personal stamp on a figure who has become an icon. With each new interpretation another layer has been added to the famous character's mythos until one would think it impossible for anybody to bring something new to the role. At least that's how I felt until I watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock: Season 2 currently airing on the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) program Mystery!.

Although Episode One "A Scandal In Belgravia" aired on May 6 2012 if you missed it you can usually count on PBS rebroadcasting progams or you can wait for them to release the DVD for public sale on May 22 2012 after Episode Two, "The Hound Of Baskervilles" (May 13 2012) and Episode Three, "The Reichenbach Fall" airs (Sunday May 20 2012, 9:00pm on most PBS stations - check local listings). Those of you who saw Season One are already aware that while the titles are the same as the master detective's great cases, there is one crucial difference, instead of being set in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th century England, these take place in modern times.

Sherlock and Dr. John Watson, Martin Freeman still live at 221B Baker Street, Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) is still their landlady, and Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is still Sherlock's pet police man at Scotland Yard. However instead of his trademark magnifying glass our consulting detective carries a smart phone and uses computers and modern pathology equipment to break down the clues he finds at crime scenes. Oh, and Holmes still has the annoying habit of being able to observe everything that others miss, and has no problems pointing out that he can't see how everybody else could be so blind.
Sherlock Season 2 DVD.jpg
Now, thanks to press access I've seen all three of Season Two's episodes, but don't worry I'm not about to give away any details. However, if you know anything of the original stories you'll have a fairly good idea how they play out anyway. For although the stories have been adapted to meet the 21st century - in "The Hound Of Baskerville" there is a mysterious government facility named Baskerville where it's rumoured they do genetic modifications to animals located right next to the moors where the hound is supposed to have been seen - they don't diverge too far thematically. One thing that I will tell you is that its important to remember that lurking in the background of nearly every episode is Holme's unscrupulous counterpart, the consulting criminal, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott).

He appears at the beginning of Episode One to resolve the cliffhanger from Season One then vanishes from sight until the end of Episode Two and finally takes centre stage with Holmes in the season's finale. All along we are made aware of the similarities between the two men. Each of them have superior intellects which they need to be employing or they become bored. The difference being while Holmes is willing to wait for puzzles to come along for him to solve, Moriarty is completely amoral and delights in creating the puzzles for Holmes no matter what the cost in human lives.

Ever since Moriarty discovered Holmes existed he's been setting puzzles for him as a diversion and to gauge what kind of threat he poses. He could be two, even three steps removed from the actual crime, but if you dig deep enough you'll find he's had something to do with every case Holmes and Watson are involved in right from the onset of Season One. Does he merely enjoy the game, seeing Holmes respond to his moves and attempt to outwit him, or is there some other deeper, more sinister motive, driving him?

While the plots and the scripts are well developed and well written what really matters in any telling of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the performances of the leads. As Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch has to be seen to be believed. Even in repose you have the impression of a coiled spring ready to explode at the first chance. While those around him think he enjoys making others look stupid with his powers of observation and intellect, if they were paying attention at all they would realize he doesn't care enough about what they think to bother wanting to show them up. He might get frustrated with their inability to draw the same conclusions he does from the evidence at hand, and often makes belittling comments about their abilities, but he's so removed from the mundane world he can't understand why people might be offended by his behaviour.

All that exists for him is the puzzle to be solved. He will literally skip for joy at the announcement of a particularly difficult murder enquiry, refers to serial killings as fun and has a nasty habit of making no secret about how much fun he's having even thought lives are at stake. You would think he was selfish and conceited except for the fact in order to be those things you have to think the rest of the world matters, and he never gives the impression they do. Cumberbatch somehow manages to communicate all of this both with his physical characterization of Holmes and his delivery of the lines. There is something about the way he always holds himself which creates the impression all his energy is pointing inward. Even when he's completely still we know there is incredible activity going on inside.

However, Cumberbatch doesn't just play him as a feelingless robot. He clamps down hard upon his feelings as they are a distraction to his intellect. He lets us have occasional glimpses past the wall he's erected around them, and those are enough for us to realize there is a human being beneath the surface. He might not need to give vent to the needless demonstrative displays so many in the world do, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care about those in his life as we find out as Season Two progresses. It's these glimpses he offers us that make the loyalty offered him by Dr. John Watson believable.
Sherlock & Watson.jpg
Martin Freeman is the perfect Watson to Cumberbatch's Holmes. Short and rather soft around the edges he offers a great physical contrast to Cumberbatch's tall and sharp Holmes, but it's not only their physicality that sets them apart. Watson wears his heart on his sleeve, cares about what others think of him, and, just as importantly, cares about what others think of Holmes. It's wonderful watching the two of them in public situations with Watson serving as a buffer between Homes' brutal honesty and people's feelings. He doesn't quite elbow his friend in the ribs, but his whispered asides of "Say thank you" or "Maybe you shouldn't smile so much, two children have been kidnapped" serve the same function.

While Freeman frequently allows Watson's exasperation with his friend's behaviour to show through, he also makes it plain he's also having the time of this life being involved with the cases Holmes takes on. Like Holmes it's not because of the attention they start to receive for solving the cases, in fact he could do without people jumping to conclusions about two single men living together, he too enjoys the thrill of the chase and the adventure. While both he and we might occasionally wonder why Holmes involves him in his cases, there is obviously something about Watson he finds invaluable. While he's just as impatient with Watson as witheveryone else, he also seems to appreciate somebody he can talk out loud to and, more importantly, trust. It's a complicated relationship and one that both actors do a remarkable job of making very real and believable.

There have been many film and television adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enigmatic hero Sherlock Holmes, but the one being broadcast on the PBS show Mystery over the next couple weeks of 2012 May has to rank up there with the best. The scripts are well written and the acting is of the highest quality. However, the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martim Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively are what make Sherlock: Season Two probably the best thing currently on television. In the words of one character, "Smart is the new sexy" and this is the smartest thing you'll have seen in a long time.

(Article first published as TV Review: Sherlock: Season Two on Blogcritics)

May 6, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me By Simon Tofield


There have been plenty of cartoon cats who have come gone over the years, and to be honest none of them have ever really appealed to me. Maybe it's because I own and like cats, I find most of the caricatures lacking. For instead of trusting in the natural appeal of the animal most of them have been given human attributes which might make them cute for some, but just makes them unappealing to me. So when someone first sent me a link to Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat it took me a while to even bother checking it out. Well, as anyone who has seen these videos knows Tofield took the opposite tact, with his cat barely beening anthropomorphized at all.

The live action cartoons are simple, black and white, sketch like drawings. Nothing high tech about them. In fact there's not even and dialogue, or at least any in human language. Simon's Cat, he doesn't appear to have any other name, communicates in a series of sounds and noises which will be familiar to any cat owner. From the inquisitive chirps he makes when faced with a puzzle all the way through to the contented purr of the well fed animal. Somehow, with just this basic vocabulary, and an understanding of cat body language, Tofield has managed to instil his creation with the just the right combination of elements that its behaviour strikes chords of recognition with his viewers. I'm sure every cat owner watching has at one time or another said a variation on, "That's just like my cat", at some time or another.
Cover Simon's Cat Feed Me.jpg
How though would the cat make the transition to the printed page? What works with an audio track and animation won't necessarily in the less kinetic media. But at those who have read Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence will know he's just as, if not more, appealing in print as he is on the screen. Up until now the books like the cartoons have been in black in and white. However that's all going to change with the release of Simon's Cat: Feed Me, a Canongate UK publication distributed by the Independent Publishers Group (IPG).

For Simon's Cat and his environment are in colour for the first time. To be honest I had worried that he might not be able to stand up to the transition. Part of the cartoon's charm has been its simplicity. In some instances the cat appears alone on the page, no settings aside from him and the object of his attention. Whether it be a piece of tape attached to his paw and his struggles to remove it, his turning of an empty box into an adventure or his continual and relentless attempts at filling his food bowl, it had always been the cat at the centre of our attention. But colour could ruin that, as colour might well demand a more fleshed out world forcing Tolfield to draw what had been left to our imaginations and reduce the cat to nothing more than just another object in a world full of clutter.

Thankfully this isn't the case. As in the previous books in those instances where Tolfield fills in the world around the cat, he always does so in close up. Even when he's out in the wilds the focus is tight to the immediate surroundings keeping our attention solely on the centre of this world's universe - the cat. As the title of this book suggests all of the cartoons revolve around its lead's endless pursuit of food. Or rather obsession with being fed. In the original animated cartoons no matter what mayhem the cat might have caused, the action would invariably end with him sitting, pointing to his open mouth making pleading noises even the stupidest of humans couldn't fail to recognize as a demand to be fed.

We are witness to Simon's Cat resorting to an impressive array of attempted deceptions and ploys in his attempts to squeeze some extra food from a harsh world. From disguising himself as a bird house, with his mouth as the entrance, in the hopes a bird will fly in to sitting under a cow and pulling on its tail in the hopes this will activate the udders under which he's urgently waiting with gaping mouth. Then there are his efforts to have other animals feed him, even going so far as begging a heron for its fish or pretending to be a fox kit in order to get a share of the kill a mother brings home for its brood. His disguises are always ridiculously easy to see through and part of the fun are the expressions of incredulity on the other animal's faces upon catching site of the interloper. It's as if they can't believe anyone can be that stupid as to fall for a cat's tricks.
Simon Tofield & Simon's Cat.jpg
While the animal kingdom might not fall for his ploys, the same can't be said for humans. While there are plenty of scenes of the cat rummaging in cupboards ripping open boxes, or stealing food from his human's plate, there are enough showing the cat falling victim to his own excesses we don't begin to hate him. For every slapstick image of the human tripping over the purring cat, spilling his coffee when his leg is used as a scratching post, the cat also gets his comeuppance. We've all seen a cat do its happy dance with its front paws, usually when it beds down in a comfortable place - like your stomach or other sensitive body parts. Well in this case the cat goes into his happy dance around his full food bowl only to take it a step too far and catch the edge of his dish and end up wearing his meal.

The success of Simon's Cat lies in the cartoon's ability to capture those characteristics of the animal immediately recognizable to any cat owner. Everyone who has ever owned a cat will at some point in watching, or reading, them say - that's exactly like (insert the name of your cat here). In transferring the series from animated cartoon to book instead of trying to fit it into a conventional comic strip format to tell the story, Tolfield elects to go with a more free form style. We either are treated to a moment in time caught on the page and left to figure out what's going on - cat sitting on floor, man throwing coffee cup at ceiling with expression of pained surprise on face and lower leg of pyjamas showing definite signs of claw marks tells its own story - or given a series of images that our eye follows around the page like stop action animation.

Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat works so well because the cat in question is not cute, has few if any human characteristics or motivations, and is saved from being a complete pain in the ass by occasionally ending up the victim of its own plots. I doubt the series will appeal to dog lovers, but if you've ever owned a cat, whether you liked it or not, you can't help but be impressed at how well it captures the domestic cat in all its glory. If you enjoyed the cartoons on the internet and the previous books of black and white drawings, then you won't be able to resist Simon's Cat in colour.
(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.


5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

October 12, 2011

Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years

Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds. Taking strange and other worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There's no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York, was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it's not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine's first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then twenty-one year old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman's descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.
Cover Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years.jpg
Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district which was the nexus for the scene, he was thirty years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn't stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn't like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators. Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject's home and take his photos on location. There were no make up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren't candid shots obviously, but something of the person's real character shines through unlike so many of today's carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. "They trusted me...and the rest of us... not to make them look like fools." For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one on one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed - they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background still reveal something of the person's story. Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It's a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn't know until much later was that it's also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn't hiding the fact the finger was absent.
Baron Wolman With Jimi Hendrix Picture.jpg
Looking at the pictures, both scattered through out the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman's favourite shoots, you can't help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music. Of the galleries of Wolman's favourites shoots the ones of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin which I personally found the most interesting. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix whether on stage or off and it's obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman's camera captures the life in his eyes even when he's sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he's relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos. However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it's because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It's far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book's title so aptly says every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music's pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments, he doesn't offer any critiques about anyone's place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much like his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes them more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music's royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn't take, we can only be grateful for those he did. After reading Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you'll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

(Article first published as Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2011

Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen

Over the past ten years the market has been flooded with an outpouring of memoirs from people who think the rest of us want to hear their tales of woe. While some have been written from a genuine desire to assist others struggling to come to grips with their own recovery, far too many have been self-serving attention seeking grabs for a flicker of celebrity. Unfortunately the numbers in the latter category have come to so outweigh the former many of us cringe upon hearing yet another "brave story of one (insert gender here) struggle to overcome past" has been unleashed upon the public. All of which means those few voices which might have something of value to say, aren't receiving a fair hearing.

Personally, I'm one of those whose instinctive reaction upon receiving a press release containing anything close to the "brave story" phrase is to hit delete and move on. As a survivor and a writer I find most of them either tedious or downright offensive. Having gone through years of therapy and dealt with my own shit, frankly I've little interest in wading through other people's manure, especially when they have nothing new to say about the subject at hand. That's especially true about those who are looking for their Oprah moment by telling the world about how miserable they were as a child. What are you trying to accomplish by spilling your guts to the world without putting it into any sort of context beyond self-pity and the confessional? No matter what anybody might say to the contrary there is nothing "inspirational" in reading somebody's tale of woe. What would be inspirational would be for you to have the courage to go to a therapist once a week and deal with your problems, but that makes for pretty boring reading and won't garner you any headlines.

So to say I was surprised to find myself intrigued enough to not only read the entire press release, but to request a review copy of Storm Of The i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen, published by her own Art Review Press, is a bit of an understatement. However, there was something about the attitude expressed in the release, and the outline of the concept for the book, that intrigued me. That the kiss of death "brave" catch phrase was nowhere to be seen and the author, a visual artist and graphic designer, was unabashedly proud of her other work, implying she was anything but the victim type, helped convince me this might be a story worth reading. However the real clincher was the fact you could tell that Ms. Collen, in spite of whatever her story was, had never lost her sense of the absurd and was still able to laugh at the world in spite of what it may have done to her.
Cover-Storm of the i -Tina Collen.jpg
As a graphic and visual artist Ms. Collen has elected to tell her story utilizing the skills she is most comfortable with as well as the written word. (Hence the sub-title "An Artobiography") Having grown tired of the standard format of both biographies and autobiographies, with their written equivalent of the talking heads in a documentary movie telling a person's story and passionless listings of events in neat chronological order, even somebody daring to consider an alternative was exciting. It was the obvious question of how she would do this which first sprang to mind. However the answer wasn't anything as neat and tidy as I thought. Instead of the book being filled with images either reflecting her emotional state during the process of recovery or recently created works that looked back on her life telling the story in hindsight, she has done something far more revealing.

Any creative person, but especially one working in the visual arts, tells their own story through their work whether they are aware of it or not. No matter what the subject matter part of who they are and how they are feeling at the time they worked on a project can't help but being communicated in the finished result. While Ms. Collen had always known her relationship with her father was a source of grief in her life, it felt like everything she did, from dating to having children, angered him and that he was constantly belittling her, it was in her work that the true impact of their relationship was manifested. Looking at various pieces she had created throughout her life she began to notice recurring themes of emptiness. The void inside of her created by her father's apparent lack of love that she had repressed and carefully hidden from herself and the world had been on display for all to see if they, and she, had only known what to look for.

Even more frightening, in some ways, was coming to the understanding her ability to lose herself in her work, to become immersed in whatever she was working on, was in fact a means of running away from dealing with the issue. While all artists lose themselves in their work to the extent they can block out the world around them if their focus is sufficient, some of the examples of Ms. Collen's pieces included in the book border on obsessive in their need for attention to detail. She created a truly brilliant and witty series of works where she painstakingly created very realistic pictures of flowers by using body parts cut from pornographic magazines as the material. (For more on these works check out the Fleurotica section of her web site)

To the world she exuded confidence and bravado, always able to make those around her laugh and delight in her creativity and intellect. But she was crippled by back and neck pain and swamped by tidal waves of guilt, remorse and grief that began to manifest in debilitating as periods of depression so deep she wouldn't want to leave her bed. But this is not solely a tale of woe, its also a celebration of a life filled with creativity and a zest for experiences. Unlike other tell all confessions filled with self-abasement, recrimination and negativity, Collen doesn't leave you feeling like you're on a guided trip of the nine circles of her personal hell. In creating this map of her journey she details the whole process not just the negatives. She even owns up to having taken pleasure out of her life, not something you'd expect to find in this type of book.

One thing, and I was ever so grateful for this. she doesn't claim to have are the answers. She's very careful never to cross the line between telling her story and telling people what to do with their situations. While she does talk about the various therapies she has attempted in her search for relief, she refrains from becoming an advocate for any particular one. Even her description of attending an intensive seminar/lecture series whose methods very obviously don't work for her, makes sure to point out how it works for a number of the participants. What she does make clear is that no matter what therapy you use, recovery from any type of early life trauma is ultimately dependant on whether or not an individual is willing to be completely honest with themselves and do their own work. A therapist is only a guide, they can't change your life for you, only you can do that. Not only does Collen make that clear, she also makes it obvious that each of us are different and that her story isn't to be taken as any sort of guideline for recovery.
Tina Collen.jpg
So what was her purpose in writing this book if it wasn't for that reason? She's honest enough to even tackle that question. At one point she wonders out loud if the process of writing this book. with all its little intricacies and design features, isn't just another means of escape. However, she doesn't try to justify its writing by saying things like, I hope my story will inspire others or some such crap. She's doing it because she needs to, it's part of her process. She's a creative and intelligent person who thrives when making pieces of art. This book is simply one more of her creations, this time it just happens to be a very realistic, multi media, self-portrait. While other artists might have painted out the wart on their chin, she's more inclined to follow in the footsteps of people like Van Gogh who had no fear of showing the world their true state when putting their own image onto canvas.

Some of the reviews for this book I've read warn this style of memoir might become a trend, with people publishing scrap books of their lives in an attempt to tell their stories. All I can say is I sincerely hope not. In the hands of an artist gifted with the honesty, humour and integrity of Tina Collen, this book works. While some might find its lack of traditional book structure - one page might be pictures of events in the past with little written explanations of the events depicted while the next deals with something completely unrelated - confusing because its not divided up into neat chapters nor told in what appears to be a chronological order. Yet, if you think of it as a really large canvass made up of the multitude of experiences that exist inside her brain right now - after all we are inherently cubist as everything we have ever done lives on somewhere inside of us making us all multifaceted whether we're aware of it or not - you'll realize you've actually been given more of a complete picture os a person's life than either an autobiography or biography would normally supply. Like a collage it's all laid out in front of us to look at and absorb as individual images and ideas catch our attention.

Tina Collen has taken the staid and boring world of biography/autobiography and blown it wide open. While you may never have heard of her and her work before, with Storm of the i she has created something both remarkable, for its bold and fresh approach, and worth taking note of as a piece of art. In a digital age with the Internet at her disposal, she has chosen to utilize two of humanities oldest means of expression and combine them in ways that both challenge and engage the reader. Asking what purpose does it serve is no more relevant than asking what purpose any painting, novel, song, dance, opera or sculptor serves. Remember all art has its roots in the autobiographical, this work is just a little bit more obvious about it than others.

(Article first published as Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiogrpahy by Tina Collen on Blogcritics)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
Cover Dancing Barefoot The Patti Smith Story.jpg
Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
Dave Thompson.jpg
Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

July 17, 2011

Graphic Novel: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson - Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero

I guess I'm something of a snob, because for the most part I've looked on so called graphic novels as being nothing more than glorified and overblown comic books. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with comic books, I've loved them ever since I picked up my first Avengers and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos books when I was kid. They were, and are, a great way of escaping reality for however long you wanted to spend poring over their pages. I have to confess, however, I have a hard time with those titles that have started to take themselves seriously while still depicting the female body as something out a male adolescent fantasy. I don't understand how you can claim to be making some great moral or social statement when your female characters defy the basic laws of physics.

Now before I'm inundated with hate mail from graphic novel apologists eager to point out how wrongheaded and stupid I am and wondering how far I've my head stuck inside my intestinal track, I'm perfectly aware there are exceptions to the above. Anything Neil Gaiman is associated with won't look like it was created by someone who has been sitting in his parent's basement glorying in the elasticity of spandex. Those titles, along with a thankfully increasing number of others, have instead focused on how to best take advantage of utilizing two mediums simultaneously in order to tell their story.
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From our earliest drawings depicting hunts on cave walls man has been telling stories through images. With the development of language there was a time when imagery took a back seat as a means of telling a story. Now, while theatre and film both use visuals and words, the former doesn't leave a permanent record behind and the latter has come to rely on visual technology to the point where language has become secondary and in many cases movies are now equivalent to paintings on a rock face as far as telling a story is concerned. The graphic novel has the potential for putting language and imagery on an equal footing. However, finding the balance between the two, where the images and the words compliment each to the point where they have equal weight in telling the story, requires both artists and writers to make changes in the way they would normally approach their work.

So I was curious to see the results of the recent collaboration between one of my favourite authors, Christopher Moore, a film director and writer friend of his, Ian Corson and Magna illustrator Jennyson Rosero in the graphic novel The Griff published by Harper Collins Canada. According to Moore's forward The Griff originally started out as an idea for a movie, but he and Corson scraped the idea when it became obvious it would cost way too much to make and went with the far less expensive graphic novel format instead.
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The plot line is your basic War Of The Worlds scenario and the world has been invaded by man eating lizard type creatures from outer space. Nicknamed "Griffs" for their resemblance to the mythical griffins, the flying lizards easily overwhelmed earth's military defences. With all early warning defence systems geared towards picking up metal objects, earth, as the tag line for the novel says, "Was totally unprepared for an enemy made of meat". With heat seeking missiles unable to lock onto the cold blooded lizards air forces were quickly demolished and mankind was quickly devoured leaving only isolated pockets of survivors hanging on by a thread. After quickly taking us through scenes of devastation and destruction the book changes pace and we join up with two of the small gangs of plucky survivors. In New York City we meet the skate border Steve, sexy video game designer Mo (short for Maureen) and Curt Armstrong, former paratrooper whose most recent employment was behind the make-up counter at Macy's. Down in Orlando Florida we meet Liz, who trained killer whales at Sea World before humans became snack food for giant lizards, and Oscar, a professional squirrel - mascot for the theme park.

The Griff had been transported to earth's outer atmosphere by a space ship and when the ship is taken out by forces unknown down in Orlando, our plucky heroes in NYC decide to risk the journey south in order to join what they think is a burgeoning resistance movement. With the aid of a research sub (The Griff don't like going underwater), a guy and his tank and a few lucky breaks they make it down to the Gulf. Meanwhile back at Sea World Liz and Oscar make the discovery that with the downing of mothership the Griff no longer seem as intent on working together to hunt down humans. While that means they're no longer acting as a collective, it doesn't make them any less dangerous as they still consider humans tasty treats. However it does mean when Liz stumbles on a clutch of Griff eggs the little hatchlings latch on to her as mommy dearest when she's the first creature they lay eyes on when they stumble into the world.
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While the story line pretty much follows along the predictable plucky survivors theme taking down the aliens out to rule the world, The Griff is saved from being typical by the minds behind it. How often do you find the ex-military guy in one of these stories giving make-up and highlighting advice? Although two female characters are built and dressed (Mo's wardrobe gives new definition to the word skimpy and Liz is permanently in a skin tight wet-suit) like stereotypical comic book "babes", their characterization makes it feel like the authors are making fun of the convention. When Mo and the boys are raiding an armoury in New York City she unearths a massive gun which reduces her to a puddle. Even funnier is the first time she fires it, for although she takes out her target, the recoil sends her flying backwards through the wall of a shed into New York's harbour. Her response to the question don't you think that weapon is too big for you, is a smirk and "I'll grow into it".

As for the telling of the story itself, Moore, Corson and Rosero have done a skilful job of blending their two media in order to tell the story. I'm sure Corson's film experience, having to work with story boards, came in handy for the parts of the book where they let the pictures do the talking, but I was very impressed by how well Rosero was able to sum up what would have been paragraphs of descriptive prose with a few illustrations. This is especially noticeable in the opening pages of the book during the depiction of the invasion and its immediate aftermath. In fact throughout the book his visuals were excellent in serving as replacements for prose in setting the mood of a scene and developing atmosphere. I especially appreciated how instead of showing the readers pictures of carnage we would be given images of our characters responding to what they saw. The horror and revulsion depicted on their faces was more powerful than any images of blood and gore could hope to be. We're so inundated with visuals of the aftermath of war and disaster, reactions to them have a far better chance at reaching us on emotional level than more of what we see on the evening news.

The Griff is not great art or literature by any means, but neither does it pretend to be anything other than what it is; an action adventure comic book. With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks the authors have jumped feet first into the medium, embracing its conventions wholeheartedly while gently poking fun at them at the same time. Like one of the better Bruce Willis action movies there's lots of action, but there's a sly wink to the audience at the same time. It's as if the writers are saying, yeah okay we know this is a little over the top, but it's a lot of fun isn't it? Which of course it is.

(Photo of Christopher Moore Eric Luse)
(Article first published as Graphic Novel Review: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson, Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero on Blogcritics.)

May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
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Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.


What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
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Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

February 23, 2011

Egypt, Sadat, Mubarak and The West

Six years ago, when I first published the story appearing below, I was just starting to write this blog and the world wasn't much different then it is today. One of the big stories in the summer of 2005 was a horrible terrorist attack that took place in Egypt as the country was again punished by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists for not only its close ties to the West, but its recognition of the state of Israel and the peace existing between the two nations. Anwar Sadat, who had signed the historic peace treaty when president of Egypt, had already paid for his courage with his life and his people continued to pay for their support of the deal with attacks like the one that occurred that summer.

While there is no way either Sadat's or his successor, Hosni Mubarak's, governments could have been described as democratic, the role they played in the stabilization of the region and the easing of tensions in the Middle East can never be under estimated. This may explain some of the hesitancy on the part of Western leadership in endorsing the forced resignation of Mubarak from his position as President. What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East? What will happen if an Islamic regime along the lines of the one in Iran is established in Egypt? Now the chances of the armed forces in Egypt allowing that to happen are extremely unlikely, as like the armies of Turkey and Algeria, they are pragmatists who understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the West. Still, the revolution in Iran started off as a secular revolt with the religious leadership only wresting control by exiling and killing off their secular allies. So anything is possible. Now I'm no supporter of military dictatorships, but sometimes there are worse things for a country so lets try and keep things in perspective over the next little while and give the people of Egypt the chance to find their own way.

Six years ago the Western media almost ignored the terror attack on the people of Egypt, a country that was fighting the war on terror when the USA was still funding Al'Quida and other Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein was the big ally in the region. Instead of consulting Mubarak we expected him to toe our line and try not to hang himself on the tightrope we forced him to walk when ever the West would take unilateral action in the Middle East. Egypt was expected to do what we wanted them to with very little in return in the way of support aside from being allowed to buy the second best arms the Americans had to sell. Perhaps if we had done a little more on the economic and social side of things instead of leaving them to suffer the consequences of the world economy without any assistance - in fact if we hadn't continually treated them like a second class ally, the events of the past month might not have played out in the same way. We asked a lot of Egypt and her people and didn't give them much in return - we need to do better in the future.

Nearly thirty years ago a leader of a country that had been at war for the previous thirty years took the courageous stand of extending his hand in peace. That he was Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the person he extended his hand to was Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel made it all the more courageous.

For the first time since the formation of the state of Israel a peace treaty between them and an Arab nation existed. One of the five countries that had sworn to drive them into the sea had reversed their stand and opened the door to the possibility of peace for the region. While there can be doubt that for both parties this involved an immense leap of faith, Anwar Sadat was stepping the furthest into uncharted territory.

Just five years after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel had once again fought off a determined attempt to conquer their land by their neighbours, neither side could be blamed for mistrusting the other. But Egypt was truly on their own in this foray. Perhaps they had tacit understanding from Jordan, but publicly every other Arab League nation condemned them as traitors.

We may never know what truly prompted Sadat's change of heart. Probably it was a combination of realizing how crippling continuous warfare was becoming, the need to establish better relationships with the U. S., and perhaps a little of "if you can't beat them join them". Whatever the motivations the fact remains that from that moment on they have been the one guaranteed not openly hostile Arab country within the region towards Western and Israeli interests.

Certainly there have been falling outs at times, disagreements that have threatened the fragile peace, but it has never collapsed in spite of pressures on the Egyptians from countless sources. Even the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists did nothing to shake their resolution.

Egypt has a long history of being a secular nation, and there in perhaps lies some of the answer to the desire for peace. Even prior to the signing of the Camp David Accord in March of 1979 they had experienced outbreaks of violence similar to those that ended up toppling the Shah of Iran in 1980.

By expanding the economic opportunities available to his country through peace with the U.S. and Israel Sadat may have hopped to improve the lot of his people. The fewer people who were discontent the less chance the fundamentalists would have of whipping up discord. There is also no doubt that he clamped down very hard on those sects advocating violence against Israel and in doing so probably sealed his own doom.

President Mubarak has continued this hard line against fundamentalists while working to build on the peace process started by his predecessor. He walks the tightrope between keeping his Arab allies happy and maintaining ties with both Israel and the U.S. He was a key player in prodding the Palestinian leadership away from terrorism and into recognising the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

His ability to do nothing and keep his Arab allies in check has prevented escalations of retaliatory actions. His refusal to allow the fundamentalists any sort of toehold within his country, mainly due to self interest, has served as a bulwark for the region against the more radical elements.

Mubarak and his government have been fighting the war on terrorism long before George Bush thought of it. Next to Israel they have been the favourite targets of suicide bombers and other acts of terror. For more then a quarter of a century they have been under these attacks and have not once wavered in their commitment to the peace process.

Hundreds, thousands even, of civilians have been killed. The armed forces and the police devout themselves to the prevention of attacks and rounding up potential threats. But what recognition do they ever receive from the west?

During the last two weeks bombs have exploded in both London and Egypt. When the bombs went off in London we were inundated with pictures and stories. The brave Londoners carry on with business as usual; personal stories of some of the victims; statements of outrage; and avowals of revenge.

When the bomb went off in Egypt killing eighty eight people and injuring hundreds more we got the story. Nothing else. To their credit George Bush and Tony Blair's government both issued statements of support and condolence. No other world leaders said a word. No condolences, no personal stories, no guarantees of support. Nothing but silence.

It was the same people doing the bombing, or at least people with the same motivations and interests. Yet it was treated as having nothing to do with us. Egypt has been on the front lines of the war against terror for twenty five years and nobody acts as if it matters.

If you were an Egyptian and compared the reactions of the Western press and leadership to the bombings of London and the most recent killings in Egypt how would you be feeling right about now? I think I would be pretty pissed off. It smacks of indifference of the worse kind.

I don't believe in coincidences. The people behind both bombings knew what the reactions would be like and they'll use it against us. Look, why are you doing anything for them, they don't care about you, they'll say. There is already enough distrust for us in the Middle East that it wouldn't take much turn more people against the West.

Anger and emotions are dangerous and easy to manipulate. There will be enough people willing to listen to that kind of talk that it is dangerous for us to take it for granted. The Egyptian government has a hard enough time as it is without us compounding their difficulties by giving short shrift to attacks on their people.

While Tony Blair may be George Bush's buddy in the occupation of Iraq and he feels obligated to make a big display over the terrorist actions in London (as well he should) Egypt has been working for peace in the Middle East for close to thirty years. They have been on the receiving end of countless acts of terrorism including the assassination of their leader. Hasn't that earned them some sort of standing in our eyes?

Without Egypt the Middle East would be in a lot worse shape than it is now. Our reaction, governments, press, and individuals, to the events of the past week there have been shameful. We can not continue to display indifference to our allies in the Muslim world. That just plays into the hands of the terrorists.

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2010

Book Review: Simon's Cat His Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield:

Nine times out of ten when somebody starts to recount some particularly memorable, at least in their minds, thing a pet has done there's a good chance that most will smile politely and nod. Like doting grandparents who can't understand not everybody is interested in every last move their little dears make, pet owners will regale the world with pictures and stories of their furred darlings without surcease. What most people with pets fail to understand is that, unlike what my cats get up to, there is nothing remotely interesting about their animals' behaviour. Being incredibly special, super intelligent and extraordinarily cute, my cats are of course the exception to that rule, and everybody will want to hear everything about them; from where they spew hair balls to how loud they can meow.

In fact pet owners are so renowned for this when I first started writing on the Internet the term "cat blog" was used derisively to refer to any blog which was no more than a personal diary. The attitude I expressed above is common to most of us who dote upon four legged critters, but really who is going to want to hear endless recounts of their doings? Let's be real, nobody is going to find stories about other people's pets funny enough to search them out on the Internet and read them, right? Well, try telling that to Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat.
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Tofield is a British animator and illustrator who has taken idle sketches of his cats and turned them into incredibly popular short animated cartoons on You Tube. With over 50 million fans watching his videos, he must be doing something right, and if you check out the films page on his web site you'll see just what that is. A combination of simply rendered line drawings, cat sounds and over the top cat behaviour make them some of the most hilarious cartoons I've seen in ages. Ranging in length from around thirty seconds to a few minutes, they take such identifiable cat behaviours as playing with an empty box, stopping at nothing in the hunting of an insect and asking to be let inside and turn them into moments of hysteria. Tofield's humour resides in his ability to exaggerate normal behaviour to the point where it's ridiculous but still believable.

Well now the star of Internet video is available in book form; Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence are both available through Penguin Canada, and he is every bit as funny on the page as he is in your browser window. (Beyond The Fence is only currently available in the US as an eBook and won't be released in hard copy until June of 2011) Tofield's ability to communicate a lot with little translates onto the page wonderfully, making both these collections as much, if not more, fun than the videos. For the static frame has allowed him to add detail to his images not seen in his animations that, especially in Beyond The Fence, make them more complete.
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In His Own Book, first published a year ago and now re-printed as a softcover, introduced us to life around the house with Simon and his cat. Anybody who has ever shared space with a cat will be able to quickly identify with all of the scenarios depicted. Sure there are some instances when our cat friend's behaviour crosses out of the realm of realistic into fantasy. However, you have the feeling, if it were possible for a cat to do things like attempt to open a can of food on its own, it would do so in the manner Tofield depicts. If the little buggers can break into cupboards it's not much of a stretch to imagine them utilizing blunt instruments to try and smash cans open. Lacking opposable thumbs can openers are out of the question so it becomes necessary to find an alternative means of gaining access to a can's contents.

Beyond The Fence sees Cat carrying out every young child's threat of running away from home. After being forced to face the indignity of being bathed, hysterically depicted in a series of large panels - anybody who has ever tried to give a cat a bath will wince in sympathy as memories of being soaked and bleeding from numerous cuts surface - Cat stalks out of his "cat-flap". One can almost hear him yelling back over his shoulder that he's running away from home and won't you regret treating me like this now! For the rest of the book we follow Cat through a series of adventures out in the wilds. Who'd have thought that birds, mice and rabbits could be so cruel. The indignities he suffers at their paws and wings; although there is the mitigating factor that he is attempting to hunt them that speaks in their defence. Still, these are humbling experiences for our erstwhile hero in his quest for freedom and independence.
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While Tofield continues to employ only black and white, in this book he has taken more time with backgrounds and filling in Cat's surroundings. Yet, he does not ignore the details which have been the key to the cartoon's success. Specifically, his amazing ability to bring expressions alive on his character's faces with only a few simple lines. Giving animals human facial expressions is a tricky business as it can often end up being insufferably cute. Tofield somehow manages not to fall into that trap by avoiding making them overtly human. No matter if it's a haughty blue heron, a friendly otter, a snarky mouse or our long suffering Cat, each critter retains their animal identity while making no secret of their feelings.

Usually only fellow cat owners would be at all interested in stories regarding the antics of our four footed companions. With his wonderful sense of the absurd and deceptively simple drawing style, Simon Tofield has managed to break down that barrier and find a way to make cat stories universally appealing. While cat lovers will be identify with the cartoons on a personal level, having experienced something similar to what's being depicted at one time or another, the humour is such it will be next to impossible for anybody to resist the charm of these two books.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2010

Top Ten Listens Of 2010

Another year is drawing to a close and now is the time for all those with pretences of critical prowess to pontificate on what they thought of as the best music of the past twelve months. We all take pride in our taste and discernment; we all wish to show how unique we are in our judgements and impress you, our readers, with our worldliness through the obscurity of our choices. To be honest, after five plus years of receiving at least a CD a day in the mail I've been finding it harder and harder to find anything original to say about what I hear. While this has probably more to do with my inability as a writer rather than any lack of talent in the musical world, it doesn't change the fact its taking more to excite me enough to sit down and review a piece of music.

Whatever the reason, I've reviewed far fewer CDs this year then in the past, and its from that much reduced pool that I've selected the following ten discs (plus two honourable mentions) as the ones that impressed me most. There's no real rhyme or reason to my choices, they just all happen to be ones which distinguished themselves sufficiently they stuck out when I surveyed my past year's worth of reviews.. If you wish to read the full review for any of the following their titles serve as a link to its location. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here then are the ten music CDs which stood out the most for me in 2010.

Sin Rumba no hay Son Septato Nacional. Formed in Havana Cuba in the 1920s this is the fourth generation of musicians to perform under the banner of Septato Nacional. While true to their roots as one of the originators of the Afro/Cuban sound, their ebullience and skill keep the music as fresh as if it were only just being discovered today instead of eighty years ago. You'll have difficulty believing there are only seven people performing so full is their sound. So infectious is their enthusiasm, not only will you find yourself swaying to the beat of their music, don't be surprised if you find yourself on your feet dancing. Truly a Cuban national treasure for all to enjoy.


Koonyum Sun Xavier Rudd & Izintaba. Hailing from Australia Rudd has long been associated with surfers, a laid back reggae influenced sound and the Aboriginal influences in his music. Originally a one man band, playing guitar, kick drums and yirdaki (commonly known as digeridoo) his sound has evolved over the course of his career to the point where he now is accompanied on this album by the South African drummer and bassist duo known as Izintaba. Even more impressive is the growth he has undergone as a lyricist and the emotional commitment to his music he now displays. While he has previously penned songs about conditions among Australia's Aboriginal population, the environment and his personal connection to both subjects, on Koonyum Sun he has taken the next step in his development. He has taken his personal feelings on the dissolution of his marriage and translated them into universal expressions on the nature of love, freedom and individuality. This is the work of a mature artist who can write about personal experiences in such a way that all can identify with them.


Homeland Laurie Anderson. Not many people have hit records by accident, but one has the feeling that's what happened to Anderson back in the late 1970s when her song "O Superman" brought her to popular attention. Even referring to her simply as a musician fails to do justice to the complexities of her creations as they have far more in common with stories than they do with songs. Homeland has her focusing her unique talents on the state of the world, specifically the United States, today. While she is well known for her use of technology in her work, vocoders to alter her voice and effects for her violin, there is something infinitely human and intimate about it. While definitely intelligent, Anderson also possesses a wonderful sense of the absurd which when combined with her apparently innate appreciation for the beauty in the world makes her material as close to sublime as possible for a secular artist.

Elephant: An African Tale Francis Jocky. Hailing from the Cameroon Francis Jocky has had to deal with other's expectations that he play "African" music when his interests have stretched far beyond his home continent's borders. So there is almost something tongue in cheek about his sub-title "An African Tale" in this instance. For while the story he recounts over the course of this song cycle is firmly rooted in his birth nation, it is not blinkered to the fact there is a huge world out there waiting for all of us. His recounting of one family's struggles expresses the hopes and fears of people all over the world. It may be based in Africa, but this is a truly international recording.

Woman In Sin Fishtank Ensemble. Every once in a while a band comes along who manage to convey a wildness of spirit with their music that no matter what they play your can't help envisioning people dancing with reckless abandon around a bon fire in a forest glade. There's something about Fishtank Ensemble, no matter if they are covering a torch song or playing a crazy reel, which makes you remember what it is about music that can upset the status quo. It frees the spirit and releases you from your inhibitions just as easily as booze and drugs, but without the nasty side effects. This group of extremely talented musicians are the perfect antidote to the deadening effects of the mundane. If you ever feel the need to remember what it means to be alive in body, mind and spirit again - this is the band for you.

Oooh La La Crash Test Dummies. Brad Roberts' voice, intelligent lyrics filled with wry humour and emotional insights combined with weird and obscure musical toys from the 1970s; what more could one ask for? Heck I could sit and listen to Brad Roberts sing pretty much anything and be content, but thankfully the main creative engine behind Crash Test Dummies has never given into the temptation to just get by on his voice. Oooh La La is no exception as he and co-producer Stewart Lerman used a stock of musical toys as inspiration for the musical accompaniment to Roberts' lyrics and created something truly distinct. The result was a delightful mishmash of styles tinged with that slightly mechanical feel one identifies with the sound of electronically produced music from before the age of digital recordings. The contrast between his rich baritone and the undertone of cheap circus music the old toys give the music might disconcert initially, but, in the end, made this one of the more original and invigorating releases of the year.

Sub City 2064 Erdem Helvacioglu & Per Boysen. Erdem Helvacioglu changed my perspective on electronically enhanced music forever the first time I heard one of his recordings. Unlike others who rely on machines to create their music, for him they are another instrument to be used in the creative process. On Sub City 2064 he and collaborator Per Boysen have created a series of atmospheric creations that bring to life an imagined future where we live beneath the waves. In turn beautiful and frightening the two men have created a recording which should serve as the benchmark for composers of electro-acoustic music in terms of emotional honesty. A work of intense beauty, it will remind you its the artist behind the instrument who matters, and artistry and creativity will shine through no matter what the circumstances.


Leva-me Aos Fado (Take Me To The Fado House) Ana Moura. Fado music is said to have been borne out of the songs Portuguese sailors sung when missing their loved ones while sailing the oceans. That will give you some idea as to the nature of the music and how, in the wrong hands, there is the potential for it to be tiresome. However, in the hands of Ana Moura, Fado becomes more than the sum of its parts. These aren't merely love songs bemoaning missing sweethearts or broken hearts as the ache expressed by their yearning could be caused by the loss of freedom to tyranny, worry for one's loved ones in a time of war or any of the numerous ways in which the world can break one's heart and spirit. It's no wonder the former military dictatorship of Portugal closed the Fado Houses upon taking power; the last thing they would have wanted were such vivid reminders of the emotional costs of their reign. Don't listen for overtly political lyrics in Moura's words, but if you can't hear the crying of a mother who has lost her child to an act of violence in her voice, you need a hearing test.


Metal Machine MusicLou Reed. In 1975 Lou Reed set records for the number of returns generated by a newly released popular musical album when he first released Metal Machine Music. Ironically if it had been released as a work of contemporary composition it probably wouldn't have raised any complaints. Reed's experimentation with sound, electronics and electricity was very much in keeping with work being done by composers John Cage and others in the avant-garde. His mistake was in hoping people would be able to forget that he was a pop musician and listen to his music in its proper context. Now, finally, Metal Machine Music has been released as it should have been it done thirty-five years ago. Taking advantage of digital technology he has re-mastered the original quadraphonic sound to accommodate modern audio equipment and offered both CD and DVD versions of the recording in one package. Hopefully the world will be ready to listen to this other side of Lou Reed a little more readily today then it did years ago.


I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Marta Sebestyen. Probably the best thing about the fall of Iron Curtain that separated Eastern Europe from the West has been the new accessibility we've gained to musicians previously denied us. Marta Sebestyen is from Hungry and sings a mixture of traditional sacred music and folk songs from her homeland. A beautiful singer, she has an expressiveness to her voice that makes an understanding of Hungarian moot as she is able to convey emotions and feelings through her tone alone. One of the real treasures of Eastern Europe, Sebestyen's music will lift your spirits no matter which God you believe in and what part of the world you come from.

Last, but not least, are two albums released in 2010 that couldn't be ignored. Compilation and greatest hit type releases aren't normally titles I would consider for this type of list, but these two merit special consideration. Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is just what its title claims, and is one the best collections of material from that time period that you'll ever hear. While you might still have trouble getting half of it played on the radio today, the majority of the songs on this collection are far superior to what passes for the equivalent you'll hear on today's airwaves. The second release probably wouldn't present any problems with obtaining air time as Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings gathers together all of Hank's old radio broadcasts sponsored by the Mother's Best Flour company originally recorded in 1951. While some of the material is hokey and sentimental, having the chance to hear Hank play live with his band and offering up trial version of new material, is something not to be missed. The collection comes with a book detailing the history of the recordings and providing full notes for each song on the fifteen CDS. There's also a DVD included featuring Hank's daughter Jett interviewing two members of Hank's band and one of the engineers from those broadcasts. Either one of these compilations would make a great addition to anyone's collection and are great fun to listen to.

So there you go, that was the music that stood out the most for me in 2010. A completely subjective and personal list of preferences, but than again, what did you expect, objectivity?

(Article first published as My Favourite Listens Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2010

Movie Review: Reel Injun

I don't normally write articles that receive a lot of comments, but twice I struck enough of a nerve with people that they responded in the hundreds. One was on everyone's favourite topic, gun control, and the other was on the use of Native Americans, First Nations in Canada, as mascots in sports teams. I was astounded at how many people couldn't get their heads around the fact that a race of people would be offended by being equated with the San Diego Chicken or other figures of ridicule that dress up in costume and generally run around making fools of themselves at public events.

The most common argument I heard was these mascots were honouring the brave fighting spirit of Native Americans and how it should be taken as a compliment not an insult. What these people seemed to forget is that when you reduce a people to one characteristic they lose their humanity as we ignore every other aspect of their culture. If you want to honour Native Americans maybe you should teach students in schools how one of the models for the American Constitution was the Iroquois Confederacy and their system of governance, instead of creating cartoon figures who have little or no bearing on the realities of Native American life across North America.
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You can't really blame the sports teams and fans though for the mascots. These representations are merely an extension of the way in which Native Americans, and indigenous people everywhere, have been portrayed in popular media since the 19th century. From Buffalo Bill's depiction of the slaughter of men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek as a glorious triumph for the 7th Calvary to contemporary New Age books selling "Native wisdom" the culture of over five hundred different nations has been exploited and distorted with depressing regularity and with little concern for reality. Now Canadian film maker Neil Diamond, a Cree Indian from Northern Quebec near the Arctic Circle, has made a documentary tracing the history of Hollywood's representations of Native Americans. While its already made the round of Film Festivals last year, Reel Injun will have its American television debut on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) show Independent Lens November 02/10.

A mixture of film clips from the earliest silent movies and interviews with film critics, actors, directors and Native American activists, Reel Injun not only shows how Native Americans have been depicted on the big screen over the years, it also explores the effect these negative stereotypes had on Natives. It seems like the camera has always loved them, as the first films ever made, Thomas Edison's back in the late 19th century, were of Laguna Pueblo dances. They were also the first peep shows to be shown in Times Square in New York City; put a penny in the slot and watch the savages dance; and there is something almost pornographic in the lurid black and white images of the dancers caught by this early camera.

Still, the early days of silent film, when technology was simple and cheap, actually saw movies being made by Native Americans about Native Americans depicting the realities of their lives at the time. It wasn't until the "talkies", and more specifically Westerns, came along that the problems began. Diamond himself talks about how as a young kid the only movies he saw on his reserve were the ones shown in a church basement on Saturday afternoons and how he and his friends would never identify with the Indians on the screen when a Western was shown. First of all none of them wore feather head dresses or rode horses, and secondly who'd want to be the bad guy?

Ah, but that's the past you say, and things have changed since then. Look at Dances With Wolves with its sympathetic portrayal of the Lakota for example. While its true, according to some of the film critics interviewed in Reel Injun that it was a watershed in the way it depicted Native Americans as multi-dimensional humans, it was still an outsider's view of what Native life was like, and a distorted one at that according to some. Russell Means, a Lakota and former leader in the American Indian Movement, was offended by the depiction of his nation requiring some "white guy with a mullet" to teach them how to fight. The people who defeated Custer at Big Horn didn't need "Lawrence of the Plains" to teach them anything.
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In fact, while most interviewed agreed, including Clint Eastwood, John Trudell, and Native film critic Jesse Wente, individual performances by people like Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer, were invaluable in changing people's perceptions of the one dimensional stoical Indian, it wasn't until Native Americans began making films about Native Americans that real change occurred. Smoke Signals, based on a story by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, was set on the Spokane reservation in the state of Washington. Nobody was wearing feathers, riding a horse or talking in pidgin English, The characters lived in the modern world and dealt with the day to day shit that concerns most Native Americans today.

However, even Eyre says that his movie was made with the wider world in mind, and it wasn't until the release of The Fast Runner by Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk was there was a film by, about and for Native people in North America. Winner of the Camera d'or for Best Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Fast Runner was set a thousand years ago among the people of the far north. Shot entirely in the language of the people, it was a gritty and real representation of what life was like in the days before contact with Europeans. There was nothing glamourous or holy about the life depicted - it was just who they were and what they had to do in order to survive.

That's a long way from the days of Chuck Conner playing Geronimo or Native actors being told they didn't look "Indian" enough to play themselves. However stereotypes die hard and its going to take a lot more movies along the lines of The Fast Runner before the image of noble savage is erased from people's minds. Perhaps the days are gone when young Native boys are going to be beat up after Saturday afternoon matinees like Russell Means and his brother were for being Injuns, or be made to feel ashamed of their heritage because they only see themselves as villains on the screen. However movies like Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and their honest depiction of Natives are still in the minority and reach far fewer impressionable minds than Disney's Pocahontas with its depiction of a real woman as a Barbie Doll Indian Princess.

Reel Injun might be light hearted in tone at times, but it tackles a serious subject with directness and courage. Many people who watch this movie aren't going to be happy as it cuts the legs out from under American icons like John Wayne and Western movies in general. However there were lots of people who thought segregation was a good thing too and we know how that turned out. Not all Native Americans are noble, great horsemen and very few of the ones I know talk to animals anymore than I do. For those who don't understand what all the fuss is about when people complain about mascots or how Natives are depicted in films, if you keep an open mind when watching this film, you'll come away at the end of the hour with a far better understanding of why it hurts so much.

(Article first published as TV Review: Reel Injun on PBS on Blogcritics.)

June 30, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Countdown To Final

For some reason I only ever seem to watch the World Cup every eight years. I doubt I could have told you before this year's started who had won in 2006 (Italy), while I watched almost the whole of the 2002 tournament. Of course that year I was pretty much a captive audience as I was in a hospital bed for the majority of the tournament. I went into hospital for surgery during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and was in until almost the final game of the World Cup. Four to five weeks of being in a hospital bed has you searching pretty desperately for distraction, and so that year the World Cup was a welcome diversion.

The years when I lived in Toronto, Ontario - up until 1990 - you couldn't help noticing when the World Cup was being played. As one of the most ethnically diverse city's in the world there's a fair chance that every country participating in the tournament will be represented by a segment of its population. It was especially difficult to ignore when Italy, Portugal, Brazil or Greece, are involved as they each have both large communities and specific neighbourhoods where their populations are concentrated most heavily. (In years when Portugal have been eliminated they naturally switch to supporting Portuguese speaking Brazil - the chance of a Portugal versus Brazil final this year will make for some interesting times down in Little Portugal if it becomes a reality). This year I have a feeling that World Cup fever in Toronto has been somewhat restrained up to now with the downtown core being turned into a police state for the G20/G8 get together. There's something about running battles between protesters and police, burning cars, barricades, and the constant din of helicopters patrolling the skies that tends to cut down on the festive mood.

The attraction for me this year has been the locale; for the first time ever the tournament is being held in Africa - specifically South Africa. That was enough to have me start tuning in for the group stages via the live stream offered by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Usually these early rounds are fairly boring as the teams are all trying to find their feet so to speak, and while there have been some startling results in opening games in the past, by the time the group stage ends the old order usually reasserts itself with the same old names leading the way into the round of sixteen. While there was still some truly remarkably boring football played, (The BBC commentators the CBC uses were constantly bemoaning a lack of goals in the early games) by the time the dust had settled, while some familiar names remained, it was obvious the old order was changing.

France, who only qualified for the tournament through a disputed goal, and reigning champion Italy failed to advance; England only managed to score two goals in three games and barely qualified; and Spain, favoured to win it all this year, lost their opening game to Switzerland and only scrapped through by the skin of their teeth. While Europe was treading water trying to stay afloat, South America's representatives had no such problems. Of the six teams five advanced, with only Honduras falling short. While Brazil is always expected to compete, in their usual Eurocentric fashion the rest of the contingent were given short shrift by the so called experts.
Argentina were discounted because not only did they barely qualify everybody questioned the sanity of their manager, the mercurial Diego Maradona. As for the rest, well what type of threat could countries like Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose to the traditional powers? Well, of the five advancing only Chile failed to win their group. Maradona's Argentineans are proving to be the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament due to his decision have them play an attacking style which saw them win all of their group games and then demolish Mexico with ease in the round of sixteen. (Of course it doesn't hurt that their attack is centred around Lionel Messi easily the most exciting player in the world right now.) Uruguay has also moved on to the quarter finals, overcoming a tough South Korean team in the pouring rain to win two to one in their round of sixteen match.

Unfortunately for Brazil and Chile one of them won't be continuing on after today (Monday June 28th/10) as they face off against each other. While Brazil hasn't looked like anything special yet, they haven't really been forced to exert themselves either as they easily handled an Ivory Coast team depleted by injuries, an over matched North Korean side, and played Portugal to a zero - zero draw in a meaningless game. One has the feeling they'll be able to elevate their game to whatever level is required of them in order to continue advancing for quite a while yet. Chile, while game, simply don't have the talent to compete with their northern neighbour and barring a miracle will find themselves going home after today. As for the game between Paraguay and Japan to be played on Tuesday (June 29th/10) that one is hard to call. In the two games I've seen involving the Japanese they not only have been able to attack well, unlike other teams they've also been able to deliver on free kicks during this tournament, scoring twice from a set piece during their three to one victory over Denmark to wrap up the group stage. Paraguay had two draws and a win to head up what turned out to be one of the weaker groups, and although I never saw them play, I have a feeling they might not be up the challenge posed by Japan and will be the third South American team heading home.

While I know American supporters were disappointed by their team's loss to Ghana after they had won their group with the thrilling last minute victory over Algeria, I think their expectations might have been falsely elevated by their success in the first three games. They only need look at how easily Germany dominated England in their match yesterday (Sunday June 27th/10) to know how weak their group opposition had been and their match against Ghana was a return to reality. Faced with a world class goal keeper in Richard Kingson and strikers able to take advantage of the few opportunities offered them, their own inability to finish around the goal finally caught up to them. Although when it comes to creating false expectations nobody quite matches up to the English. Why anyone could have considered them a threat to challenge for the World Cup this year was beyond me. They can yell about referee error until they are blue in the face, but they were still outplayed and outclassed at every turn against Germany. Anyway, every team playing has to live with the fact that the refereeing in international football matches is archaic and flawed, and its how a team responds to those setbacks which shows its mettle.

While some European sides have been a source of embarrassment and disappointment for their fans there are still five remaining. Germany has a long history of success at the World Cup, and although critics were prepared to write off this year's side because of injuries and inexperience, they have proven to be one of the more exciting sides to watch. Aside from their let down against Serbia where they obviously went in over confident after their easy four - nothing result against Australia, they have played with confidence and ability. Holland, Portugal, and Spain, have all at one time or another deservedly earned the title of the best teams to have never won anything. Spain finally broke through to win the European Cup in 2008, but aside from that, despite exceptionally talented sides for years, none have ever won any title of significance. With Spain and Portugal facing off tomorrow (Tuesday June 29th/10) one of them will keep the that tradition alive - and quite frankly its a toss up depending on which side is able to field players instead of prima donnas. However, I'll go with Spain based on their gritty win over Chile.

Holland has managed to sneak under everybody's radar this tournament, or at least not attract the publicity that other less deserving sides have managed, and have quietly gone about winning every one of their group matches in a solid if unspectacular manner. In a couple hours they'll be going up against one of the surprises of the tournament, Slovakia, who advanced after their three - two upset of Italy. While Slovakia might be a sentimental favourite for some, they stand no chance against the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the winner of this game, their next opponent will be the winner of the Brazil - Chile match-up and even Holland will be hard pressed to rise to that occasion. Ironically the European team with the best chance of advancing past the quarter finals will be the winner of Spain versus Portugal as they will take on either Paraguay or Japan, as Germany already has a date with Maradona's Argentineans.

In fact there's a very real possibility that the semi-final match-ups will see three South American sides and one European side vying for a berth in the finals, with either Spain or Portugal (my bet being Spain) trying to get by Argentina and Uruguay duelling Brazil for the other spot. No matter how much I'd love to see an African side move all the way through to the finals the first time the games are held on their home continent, even if Ghana were to overcome Uruguay by some miracle, Brazil would just be too much for them. With Argentina improving with every game, and Lionel Messi continuing to dominate the mid-field creating opportunities for his team mates to score nearly every time he brings the ball near an opponent's goal, neither the surprising Germans nor a desperate Spanish side will do much to slow down their march to the final. So come July 11th/10 expect to see the blue and white of Argentina take the field against the gold and blue of Brazil in the final- and hopefully one of the best football games played this decade. As long as Maradona doesn't decide to send himself on as a substitute, when the dust finally settles we should be seeing the boys from Patagonia raising the cup at the end of the day.

(Article first published as World Cup 2010: Rooting For An All-South American Final on Blogcritics.)

June 10, 2010

Book review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight

When your first novel turns out to be a controversial and somewhat well received effort that centres around your own confusions about a choice you made in the past, what's an author to do for an encore? Although he hadn't been a character in The Taqwacores, the story had expressed Michael Muhammad Knight's confusion over, and dissatisfaction with Islam, the religion he had adopted as a teenager. While on one level the characters represented the confusion typical of many second generation immigrants who are being pulled between the traditions of their parent's culture and the freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries, they also reflected the many sides of an argument Knight was having with himself.

Was he or wasn't he a Muslim? Were his motivations for converting legitimate and how could he call himself Muslim now considering the lifestyle he had been and was currently leading? Could you be a Muslim even if you didn't follow all the rules and blindly obey everything that was written in the Qur'an? All of these questions had come up in one form or another, plus many more, over the course of that first novel. Therefore, since he was intellectually such an integral part of the first book, it only makes sense that he write himself into Osama Van Halen. Although written in 2005 controversy over its predecessor prevented it from being published until 2009 when Soft Skull Press released it along with a new edition of The Taqwacores so they could be read in sequence as intended by the author.
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Knight isn't the only "real" person who makes an appearance in the book as he's dotted it with fictional representations of friends of his from the Taqwacores movement that developed from the first book. The lines between fact and fiction start to blur in places as Knight the author and Knight the character in the book turn out to be two different people and both make their presence felt during the story. At times you do wonder which one it is you're reading about, but usually there's not that much confusion as he's quite clear in his own mind who's real and who's fictional. Although things do get a bit weird when he meets up with a couple of friends in "real life" and tells them about their fates as characters in the book.

Thankfully he's not made himself the only main character as his fictional self plays the role of side kick to the main character, Amazing Ayyub. When he steps out from behind the character of "the author Michael Knight" to become Michael Knight he acts as sort of a spelt out sub-text explaining the whys and what the fucks of the story. For, while Knight is out looking for some inner truth about himself through conversations with young Muslim women he's had contact with in the past, Ayyub is busy with his own tasks. Amazing might have been a minor character in The Taqwacores, representing the extreme end of the Islamic punk movement with his rampant alcohol consumption and blatant crazed and anti-social behaviour, he now finds himself cast in a starring role which requires him to rise up and become a defender of the faith - Taqwacore.

For as punk rock before it was co-opted by an industry bent on making money out of rebellion, Islamic punk has been discovered and is about to have its rebellious soul ripped out of it in the name of marketing. The Amazing Ayyub has seen the enemy and its name is Shah 79 and it must be eradicated before the heresy can take root. Much to his horror he discovers that they have set up shop in his home town of Buffalo while he is on the other side of the continent. He had been in Los Angeles with Rabeya, the burqa-wearing radical punk woman from the first book, kidnapping Matt Damon in an attempt to force Hollywood to depict Muslims in a more positive light. At a pit stop in a gas station he not only discovers the new heresy threatening his core belief system, he loses Rabeya and Damon when he discovers the van they were in has left without him.
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What follows are a series of adventures designed to both test him and hone him for his final confrontation. Part biblical, part science fiction and all punk his quest begins behind the wheel of a van transporting a thrash metal punk band across America. Fuelled by speed and his own manic energy he drives his motley collection of passengers into the desert where they are set upon by zombies who have taken over a mosque. Saved by Basim, the lead singer of the Kominas (The real life lead singer of an actual Taqwacore band), from the undead, Ayyub is then outfitted with a really big gun and a prayer of invisibility that will allow him to carry out his mission.

Blending fact and fiction is a difficult stunt to pull off, especially when you include yourself as one of the characters in the book. However in Osama Van Halen Knight carries it off with skill and dexterity. It would have been easy for this to turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, however the author's sense of the absurd and ability for self-satire never allow it to descend to that level. Instead what you have is a quite brilliant piece of writing which not only deconstructs the relationship between an author and his characters and their role as his mouthpiece, but also ensures the reader understands the depth of the author's sincerity. We not only see the confusion he feels as represented by his fictional self and his fellow characters in the book, we see him struggling with the questions that lie at its root.

While sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, the blending of the two will sometimes reveal truths neither on their own are capable of dealing with. Osama Van Halen is an example of how it is possible to construct a book that straddles both worlds without sacrificing the integrity of either. Thought provoking and thoughtful, it raises more questions than it answers about the nature of religion and our relationship to it, but they are questions that need to be asked if we have any hope of ever finding our way out of the mess we've made of the world. Bravo to Michael Knight for being brave enough to ask them, and being equally brave for not claiming to have the answers. It's just too bad people are too busy condemning him to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Book Review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with millions of other Muslims Knight hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for. Unfortunately, most of what he found was evidence of how Saudi Arabia, where the city of Mecca is located, has tried to put its stamp on the religion to ensure its control over it. He finds Muslims from all over the world attempting to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic even though they don't understand a word of it. While initially he feels superior to them because he's not allowing himself to be led blindly, that gradually changes to guilt because he can't shake the feeling that maybe that's what faith is really all about.

Who is he to feel superior when they can accept the word of God so easily, but he has to question everything? Are they right and he's wrong? Yet, blind obedience means accepting verses in the Qur'an that allow a man to beat his wife and other things that he can't accept. Can you be a Muslim and not accept those passages in The Book? Or are you something else when you do that? According to Knight there are those in the progressive Muslim movement who try and "reinterpret" those offensive lines, but they still refuse to denounce them as wrong. What can a person of conscience do about Islamic law that makes a woman a man's possession upon marriage?

Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith's history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest. These types of books are desperately hard to write without them coming across as self serving and of no interest to anyone save the author's navel, yet Knight has managed to turn his highly individual story into something universal.Anybody who has ever questioned their faith, or sought to find out more about themselves, can find something to identify with. I'm sure that conservative religious types of all faiths will be offended by a great deal of what he has the honesty to talk about and admit to. However, those of you who have faith and are experiencing difficulty reconciling your religion, no matter what your religion is, with your own feelings and beliefs on how the world should be, will find that Knight has a lot to say to you.

Knight has an uncanny ability to write about what others would consider insanely complicated issues with a clarity and straightforwardness that make you wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn't pretend to have the answers to any questions readers might have, he's not even sure if he's been able to answer his own questions. However, to my mind, there has never been a more honest book written about the nature of religion and an individual's relationship to their belief system. If more people were as brave and honest as Michael Muhammad Knight when it came to their religion the world would be in far better shape.

(Article first published as Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

While it's true that all immigrant children in North America have to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the culture of their parents and the new society they've landed in, some have a harder time of it than others. Obviously those arriving from English speaking European countries have the easiest time making the transition to the new world. Not only do they have an easier time passing because of skin colour, they usually share a common cultural heritage, or at least one not to far removed, from that of their new contemporaries. While they might have some minor adjustments to make, they're nothing to what faces the kids who not only speak different languages, but have a completely different cultural background.

While ethnic heritage can play a major role in determining how easy it is for a child to fit in with his or her new surroundings, those from different religious backgrounds deal with issues that most of us can't even begin to understand. This is especially true for those whose religion teaches a moral and cultural code that is in conflict with what is considered acceptable behaviour in our society. Not only do they find themselves being pulled in two directions at once, being attracted to some aspects of the new but wanting to remain loyal to their traditions, there is also the guilt they feel for any transgressions they see themselves as having committed when they do surrender some of their old moral code.

One of the ways some groups deal with this is by creating insular communities within the overall community at large so as to preserve the integrity of their culture. One of the earliest examples of this were the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who established their own districts in cities in Canada and the US which included places of worship and schools for their children. Gradually over the years the community itself demanded a relaxing of the rules governing their lifestyle and out of that was born the three tiers of Judaism we have today; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. This compromise has allowed people to continue to be faithful to their religion while accepting the ways of the world around them to whatever extent they are comfortable with.
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Michael Muhammad Knight's first novel, The Taqwacores published by Soft Skull Press, has been labelled everything from a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement to a Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims. While those make for catchy tag lines on a book cover, they actually have little or nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. While it's true most of the characters in the book are both punks and Muslims, so you could make a case for the manifesto comment, the comparison to Salinger's work is a bit more of as stretch. Sure both are about young people, but aside from that they have little or nothing in common.

Knight's book is set in a house in Buffalo New York occupied by a collection of young Muslims. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is an engineering student at the university and from a middle class family in Syracuse. His family encouraged him to live outside the university in a Muslim house as "there were things in the dorm that were bad for him". However if they knew what went on in his house they might not have been so sanguine about his living arrangements. For while its true the occupants are all Muslim, they also spend most of their time smoking drugs and drinking, two things high on the list of no no's as far as most Muslims are concerned.

On the other hand the house's occupants do their best to observe the prayer times, and the four male inhabitants pray together on a regular basis. However they open their Friday night prayers to the whole community which means allowing men and women to pray together and having a woman take the role of Imam to lead them in prayer and give the sermon, neither of which would are considered acceptable by conservative Muslims. Even more disconcerting perhaps would have been the fact that immediately after the Friday prayers, the house would fill up with a mixed bag of local punks and play host to wild parties.

While we witness all of this behaviour through Yusef's eyes, he doesn't participate. He describes himself as the token nerd who is allowed to hang out with the cool kids, and he keeps up a continual internal dialogue about those around him questioning their behaviour. He is torn between what he's been taught is right, what the laws of his religion and tradition tell him defines a Muslim, and the reality he sees in front of him. Sure his friend Jehangir drinks like a fish, smokes dope, has sex and has a bright orange Mohawk haircut, but he also calls himself a Muslim and is as devoted in his prayers as anyone. Yet even this apparently free spirited Jehangir is plagued doubts, and after a while you begin to think a great deal of his excess is a result of not being completely certain he's doing the right thing in breaking the rules.
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While the book spares no detail in its description of people's behaviour, and no doubt it won't be just Muslims it will offend, it's beneath the surface that the real story resides. Knight's talent lies in his ability to create this incredibly diverse group of characters who not only spring off the page because they are so vividly described, but also represent a variety of viewpoints when it comes to what constitutes being Muslim. What's even more realistic is how he shows that doubts can cut both ways; for while the liberal punks might doubt themselves on occasion, the hardline character has cracks through which his doubts about strict adherence to the scripture comes through.

Western Judaism began its shift into the modern world through politics in the early part of the 20th century with the beginnings of the social justice movement. At the extreme end of the spectrum were the communists who rejected religion entirely. While they might not have represented the mainstream anymore than Knight's punks represent the mainstream of Islam, the ripple effect of their activities resulted in the gradual liberalization of their religion. The more extreme characters in The Taqwacores will not be acceptable to most Muslims, but like the communist Jews a century ago they don't expect or want to be. Their dream of a Utopian Islam where all are welcomed by all may never be a reality, but its the fact they dream at all that might end up making a difference.

What Knight has depicted in his book is the natural questioning of traditional values that occurs when an insular people are exposed to different views of the world. The questions his characters ask themselves are ones that have been asked many times before, and like those before them they discover there's no such thing as only one correct answer. While a lot has been made out of the book because its characters are predominately Muslim, its as much a book about the clash between tradition and new that occurs in all immigrant communities as it is about being Islamic. Knight has done a fantastic job of bringing that struggle to life as his characters navigate through the challenges that face any young adult, while doing their best to remain as true to themselves as possible.

If there is any hope for a world where religions and cultures can peacefully co-exist with respect and tolerance, we are going to need far more books like this one. It doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions or depicting things some might find unpleasant, but it does so without negativity or cynicism. This is not a blank generation without hope for the future. They might not be quite sure what the future will be or how to make it happen, but they'll do their best to make it better than what we have at present.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2010

DVD Review: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam

When he was seventeen years old Michael Muhammad Knight followed in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam. However unlike Ali, and the majority of other Americans who become followers of the Nation Of Islam, Knight isn't an African American. Brought up in an Irish/Catholic household, his conversion to Islam was in reaction to his white supremacist father. Like many other converts to a new religion he became something of a zealot to begin and travelled to Pakistan to study at a very conservative mosque.

However there came a point where the dogma became too much for him. Islam was still important to him, but not the narrow minded view of the world the conservatives dictated should go with it. So he ran from one extreme to another and sat down and wrote the novel The Taqwacores, which supposed the existence of a house full of Islamic punk rock musicians sharing a house together in Buffalo. Initially self published the book began to strike a chord with disaffected Muslim youth across North America and Knight was constantly writing people to tell them the characters in the book didn't exist.

In a strange twist on the old life imitating art thing though, it came to pass that Michael and a collection of Islamic punk musicians - mainly the young people who contacted him in the first place - came up with the idea of bringing the book to life. In the book the musicians set out on the road to tour around North America with their ultimate destination being the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago. So, piling into a school bus painted green and decked out with graphics and slogans, bands like the The Kominas from Boston, The Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, Al-Tharwa from Chicago and individual musicians like Omar Wagner from Washington DC, set out to shock and awe America.
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Joining them on the bus, and for the the tour and beyond, was a documentary film crew headed by Canadian director Omar Majeed. The resulting film of this strange pilgrimage, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (not to be confused with the soon to be released film adaptation of Knights book The Taqwacores) is now available on DVD through Lorber Films. The film is roughly divided in two with part one introducing us to the various bands on the tour, following their misadventures as they attempt to play gigs, get stopped by cops, spend the night in a mosque in the middle of a corn field in Ohio, and finally make it to the ISNA conference. Part two picks up at some point after the tour in 2007 as two members of The Kominas have moved back to Pakistan and are attempting to bring punk with them and Knight comes to visit with camera crew in tow.

As we meet the young people involved in the Taqwacore tour (Taqwa - the Muslim term for God consciousness - core for hard core punk) we realize that like Knight they are all trying to find a place for themselves in the world. As young Muslims in North America they don't want to give up their faith, but at the same time they want the freedom to be who they are as individuals as well. Gay, straight, male and female their songs range from the overtly political like The Secret Five's "Guantanamo Bay" or tongue in cheek satire like The Kominas' "I'm An Islamist" - their version of the infamous Sex Pistol tune.

While watching them wander across America in their green school bus I couldn't help but be reminded of another school bus forty some years earlier and the book that recorded that journey. American author Ken Keasy and his band of Merry Pranksters drove an old converted school bus around the country in the early 1960's preaching the gospel according to LSD and were memorialized in Tom Wolf's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. However the great thing about film is that we have a much more direct link to the action and it's not so blatantly filtered through an author's voice. With Wolf's book you have the feeling it was written with the idea of giving middle class liberals a few cheap thrills, while Taqwacore is far more intent on telling the story and perhaps broadening viewer's minds as to who Muslims are.
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While the attempt to bring punk to an Islamic audience in America met with mixed success; when they performed at the ISNA conference they were closed down by the organizers for having female singers and dancing but the audience of young girls wearing headscarves were more than happy to sing along with lyrics like "Stop the hate"; what kind of reception would it get in an Islamic country? When Knight arrives in Lahore Pakistan he finds that his two old buddies from the Taqwacore days have sunk into a bit of a hash soaked stupor. They've pulled together a band but are finding it next to impossible to play gigs. What they hadn't counted on was the fact that popular music is mainly for the small percentage of affluent people, while the poor people whose message punk is aimed at are much more interested in traditional music or Bollywood. It's also almost impossible to bring the two audiences together in a single venue because of the class differences still very prevalent in that country.

While they eventually do manage to give a successful free concert in downtown Lahore, the majority of our time in Pakistan is spent with Michael Knight as he travels around visiting various shrines and mosques. He even braves going back to the mosque where he studied years ago and sits and talks with the cameras about himself for a while. What's really quite amazing about him is his incredible ability to be completely honest with himself. At one point he talks about his behaviour when he first converted and how he used to lecture his mother about her way of dressing and the fact that she would have a glass of wine before sleep. At first he thought her reactions to this, soft smiles and not arguing with him, were the sign of a mother's loving patience, but then he realized it was also the behaviour of a person who had been seriously abused for a long time.

His father used to threaten her endlessly and she had to sit through hours of torment while he would accuse her of everything from having the Devil for a lover to giving birth to the Devil's son. Her only defence was to never fight and passively let him rant on and on. When Knight finally put two and two together he understood that his lecturing his mother on her behaviour in the manner he was doing was abuse. When someone is able to admit this to himself any doubts you might have had about their sincerity are lost. His conversion to Islam may have initially been an act of rebellion, and his subsequent conversion to punk an expression of frustration that Islam wasn't able to supply all the answers he wanted, but the journey he and all the other young people we meet in this film are on, are sincere attempts to find a path that honours both their faith and themselves.

While the idea of punk rock Muslims might sound ridiculous to some people and to others it might even be blasphemous, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam is inspiring and hopeful. Not only do those involved dispel any stereotypes you might have about Muslims, they also show how it is possible to be a religious person without letting your religion dictate who and what you are as an individual. The underlying message of tolerance and respect, mixed with a healthy dose of the benevolent chaos of punk, is one the world could stand hearing over and over again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Taqwacore -The Birth Of Punk Islam on Blogcritics.)

April 30, 2010

Interview: Mike Bonanno Of The Yes Men

My introduction to the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno came about from watching their recently released DVD The Yes Men Fix The World. To say I was awe struck by the audacity and daring of the form their protests against multinationals, globalization, and the "Free Market System" in general and corporations like Dow Chemical and Haliburton in specific is to put it mildly. In fact they have given me cause to believe that if you looked up the word "Chutzpah" in the dictionary you'd see their happy faces grinning back up at you.

After reviewing their DVD I e-mailed them in the hopes of being able to interview either one or both of them in an attempt to find out a little bit more about who they are and what they do. Half expecting a no for an answer due to the hectic nature of their schedules - working day jobs while trying to fix the world doesn't leave you much spare time, so I was very grateful when Mike Bonanno said he'd be willing to answer my e-mailed questions. He's a lot better at getting to the point than I am so although some of his answers are shorter than my questions it's only because he doesn't waste any words.

Hopefully this interview will give you the incentive to check out at least my review of their DVD and maybe support their efforts by picking up a copy of it for your own pleasure. Those who want to get more directly involved can always check out their web site for a list of actions ongoing around the world which you can involve yourself in. Now without further ado, Mike Bonanno

1) Any special reason for the name "Yes Men"?

We started out wanting to be a funhouse mirror for big business. We thought we would say "yes" at corporate conferences until the ideas all seemed amplified and comic. Over time,  the name seemed to be more reflective of our culture of capitalism overall: we agree with the people in power just for a little short-term gain, no matter what the effect on the planet.  

2) So how did you settle upon this as a career choice - As a child did you say to your parents I want to be a professional shit disturber when I grow up or did you just gradually evolve into the role?
It happened to us by accident! We really did stumble into it... although we both had serious mischief streaks as kids. 

3) What brought the two of you together?

The Internet!

4) Some people might find it difficult to understand why you do what you do - so what is it that motivates you and why do you do whatever it is you do?

Well... the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. And we like the world. Perhaps we are nuts, but we think its worth fixing. Is that not motivation enough? 

5) What would you call what you do?

We are troublemakers for a cause. We hope to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. 
6) The chances of shaming someone - or something - like Dow Chemical or even a government agency like HUD are slim - so what do you hope to accomplish with your actions?

Our actions are all about getting the perspective of the powerless and disenfranchised into the news cycle – something that rarely happens in a profit-motivated media without some seriously drastic storytelling action. In the case of Dow and Hud, for example, the goal was not to make them feel bad (which they would not in any case), it was to make them look as bad as they are, for a general public that might have forgotten about their legacy in Bhopal or might not know they kicked the poorest people out of their homes after Katrina.  And in that regard we think our methods work pretty well... 

7) What do you hope that someone watching the film The Yes Men Fix The World will take away from it?

We hope that people who watch our film will be motivated to get out of their chair and go do something... put some pressure on government to change. We did actually have lots of people leave their seats and take to the streets after our theatrical screenings. We led the audience on several protests. Unfortunately, we could not do that every time, we were too exhausted...
 
8) When I hear politicians saying things endorsing the free market I realize how much closer Canada is to being a social-democratic state than the US - our politicians would never even dream of saying something like let the market forces fix a natural disaster - they would be run out of town on a rail.(Alberta being an exception to that rule being owned by the oil companies) Why is it do you thing Americans as a whole accept Free Market capitalism so cheerfully?

I think that since 1980 in the USA the free market has been revered by people at the highest levels of office, and even by our school curriculum. The people who are ripping us all off with this weird idea were pretty successful at getting people in the USA to think that human freedom = the free market. Of course that is not true at all... one only need to remember that it was a certain kind of "free market" that enabled mass slavery in the first place. But it has also been portrayed as a kind of weapon of democracy... all the presidents since Reagan were avid supporters of forcing free markets upon people along with so-called democracy. It is still a weird cold-war hangover. There is a huge education problem in the USA. We are taught to be stupid, angry, antisocial, merciless, and proud. 

9) Why is it that you think so many people at the conferences you attend as guest speakers take what you say at face value? For example the gilded skeleton, the Survivor Ball, and that bit about buying votes.

I think that there are psychological reasons why people go along with really bad ideas- but there is also the simple fact that they are there to get our business card. They think we are the most important people in the room, so they are not going to upset a business relationship over a little horror story. Hey, you only need look at world war two to see that there were plenty of american companies (like Ford) who just kept doing business with the Germans - even after the invasion of Poland - simply because they were in business together. Its pretty sick! 

10) I find it amazing that Dow Chemical was able to issue a statement denying they were going to compensate the people of Bhopal or do anything about cleaning up the site and that nobody questioned it - that nobody asked well - why the hell aren't you?

But people do ask this all the time... the victims. The problem is that the victims don't have a huge amount of wealth behind them, so they have trouble getting a word in. Other than that, many people don't really seem to notice... especially when there are huge greenwashing campaigns going on, like Dow's sponsorship of a ludicrous "run for water." 

11) Did you consider the fact that releasing the DVD The Yes Men Fix The World might actually be detrimental to any further actions of the sort depicted in the movie? That people organizing conferences might start to do a little more due diligence about who they're inviting to speak or to issue statements on television news programs? Can you see the BBC ever again extending an invitation like the one given you simply because of a web site without maybe phoning Dow and checking out its veracity?

We probably wont get invites from the BBC anymore... but there are always more ways of doing things! And more importantly, now we are actually focusing on getting more people involved. See this for more info. 

12) On your web site you offer the means for people to formulate actions and give suggestions on how to carry out the types of things you've demonstrated in your DVD. Have there been any signs that people are following your example and carrying out projects of the same scale as yours? Any choice examples?

Lots of people are doing cool projects that relate... there have been several fake newspapers where people consulted with us. A really amazing example of someone who says he was inspired by us is Tim DeChristopher, aka "Bidder 70". See his site for details, what he did is super important!  

13) How do you fund these activities - travel to Europe isn't cheap and neither would it be inexpensive to make 500 candles or some of the other prototypes you have handed out at various events? Do you follow the investment model you describe in the special features of the DVD or is there some other means you have to raise capital?

We actually lose money from making the movies. We pay for this stuff mostly from our day jobs... at least the getting to events and what not. And increasingly through speaking engagements. 

14) I assume you've read Naomi Klien's Shock Doctrine in which she details examples of disaster capitalism. How is this destruction of public resources kept from or sold to the public so easily? For example the closing of public school boards and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.

The way its done is first to starve the public sector, and then to make people hate it because once its starved and broken it ceases to work well. That is definitely the case for the school systems in the US, public housing, public works of all sorts. So when people suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with some "private sector" solution most of the public goes along with it. Its really sorry that the strategy is not called out right in the beginning.  

15) There was a report in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe And Mail, today (March 23rd) that First Nations bands in British Columbia are threatening to blockade coastal waters in order to prevent tankers from carrying oil that was transported via a pipeline cutting through their territory. Time after time we hear people raise their voices in protest against things like this, but corporations and governments continue to try and push these projects through regardless until a protest occurs. Instead of taking things project by project, protest by protest, what can be doine to ensure these types of project are no longer even considered?

The only way to do it is to take back the government and start to enact sane regulations. Its either that or revolution. 

16) With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing debt ridden countries to privatize their natural resources while cutting social spending and regulations - like environmental controls and worker health and safety legislation - that curtail business, what's the likelihood of another disaster along the lines of Bhopal?

There are countless Bhopals in the works. Unfortunately, the mother of all Bhopals is the climate change situation. Here we know we are facing disaster- with much MORE certainty than they did in Bhopal. And yet the political will is not there to change. It is criminal, and very, very sick.
 
17) On a more cheerful note - what's next for the Yes Men?

The first vacation in ten years! This summer we are taking some time off. But only to come back and put renewed energy into the Yes Lab! 

Thanks again to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions. If you want to see some of their most recent work - doctoring of various attendees' video statements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos - you can check them out here. Here world and industry leaders give the speeches that they should have given in response to the plight of the world's poor and starving population instead of the usual platitudes and non-answers. Pay particular attention to Patricia Woertz, head of one of the worlds largest multinational agribusinesses, ADM, to see if you can see what could have upset them so much they demanded its removal from You Tube. The world would be a lot better place if politicians and industry leaders talked more like the Yes Men and a lot less like themselves.

(Article first published as Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men on Gonzo Political Activism and Troublemaking for a Cause at Blogcritics.org)

April 22, 2010

Laurie Anderson Collaborator Competition For New Disc Homeland

When I first heard "Oh Superman" back in the 1970's I thought it was somebody's idea of a joke. In some ways it sounded like, at least to me, a take off of the European electro-pop that you could occasionally hear on the radio from groups like Kraftwerk. But, than again, I had no idea who Laurie Anderson was or what she was all about either. It wasn't until late 1979 or early 1980 that I started to hear excerpts from what was her major opus at the time, United States, a collection of tales, songs, and performances, that I realized she was far more than what could be contained within the confines of a five minute pop song.

Those were the days when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was still broadcasting interesting and diverse programming, and one of the best of those shows was called "Brave New Waves". You could hear everything from punk to avant-garde during the show, and it was here I first heard United States. One night the announcer came on the air and said, "Laurie Anderson was in town tonight" (Montreal), and she then proceeded to play it in its entirety. I had never heard anything like it before. It opened my mind to possibilities that I had never even considered when it came to the idea of performance. Unfortunately what I didn't understand at the time was that it required quite a singular talent to be able to realize those potentials, and since then have failed to find few, if any moments, to equal the excitement generated by that initial hearing.

The past thirty years have seen quite a few changes in my life but I've yet to lose the motivation to create inspired by that night and I still experience a thrill when a new Laurie Anderson release is announced. Although I long ago realized there is no hope of re-creating my experience of all those years ago - it was a singular conjunction of events and circumstances that were as much to do with my age and where I was in life as what it was I heard that night - her work is still something special for its intelligence and ingenuity. You can honestly say there's really nothing else quite like what she does being performed by anyone else.
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Although she has produced albums like other recording artists, a number of her recordings are actually records of performances she has been touring for some time. So instead of merely being a collection of songs that may or may not be interconnected, they are more like listening to a unified work along the lines of a orchestral piece or even a play. Unlike those structured pieces though her work in the past has been less formal in its presentation, and is more a collection of music and spoken word works designed to communicate with her audience her thoughts and feelings about the state of the world.

Such is apparently the case with her forthcoming disc on Nonesuch Records, Homeland, which is being released on June 15th/10. While its technically her first studio album since 2001, she has spent the last two years developing the music that will appear on it through touring a performance of the same name. According to the press materials from her label while it will feature Anderson's distinctive violin playing and vocals - including the assuming of different persona as she has in the past - she will also be drawing upon a range of musical styles and working with musicians from as diverse backgrounds as Tuvan throat signers to experimental jazz players from New York City. However, the most unusual collaboration will be what's planned for the song "Only An Expert".

Taking advantage of the increasing sophistication of Internet technology, Anderson has made the source tracks from the song available to musicians all over the world to see who can come up with the best re-mix of the track. Using the services of Indaba Music, a site where musicians find collaborators for projects by uploading and sharing their music, she has opened the competition to anybody who wishes to make a stab at either re-mixing, or even covering, the song. From now until May 13th/10 at 5:00 p.m. EST those wishing to participate can register at Indaba Music and then either download the tracks from the "Only An Expert" remix program page for use on their own equipment, or they can make use of Indaba's on line studio instead.
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While the winner won't have their track included on the hard copy of the CD, they will win $1000.00, be featured as an exclusive track on the ITunes release, have their track streamed on Nonesuch's and Anderson's web site and receive a year long Platinum membership to Indaba Music (A value of $250.00 - see their membership page for details). In addition to the grand prize winner there will be two second place winners who will have their track streamed on the Nonesuch web site and receive a year long Platinum membership and ten honourable mentions who will have their track streamed on Anderson's web site, receive a signed deluxe package of Homeland and a Pro membership to Indaba Music. Both the grand prize and runner ups will be selected from all the submissions by the judges; Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and Mantis Evar from Indaba, while the ten honourable mentions will be selected from the twenty-five re-mixes who are able to garner the most support through voting conducted at the web site. Once an entry is uploaded and entered it can start receiving votes, and entrants are being given the opportunity to promote their contributions with widgets they can post at personal web sites and social networking pages.

Judging from the tracks I've downloaded (my wife is a singer/poet/songwriter and percussionist so I'm encouraging her to enter) the song is a biting piece of political and social satire dealing with our love of problems and the experts needed to solve them. If its any indication as to the rest of the release, Homeland promises to be as evocative and challenging as anything Anderson has put out in her career until now. While some might see this contest as merely a means of marketing the release, I'm of the mind that its a genuine way on her part of encouraging people to express themselves and make their voices heard about issues important to them. A contest like this is bound to generate as much resentment as good will - people complaining about not winning etc - and actually represents something of a risk in these mass communication, viral video messages gone wild days. All it would take would be one disgruntled competitor with a grudge and access to a server to generate enough bad publicity to hurt sales significantly.

Laurie Anderson is a unique talent who in roughly thirty years of producing music has only ever come to popular attention by accident. For the most part she has quietly gone about creating and performing her music, painting, and writing with little or no popular recognition. While it would be nice to think that this competition will draw more people to her work, the reality is that the majority aren't ready to deal with the issues she raises or the style in which she presents them. Intelligent, insightful and awe-inspiring she has the ability to take a listener places they might not have gone on their own, unfortunately too many people aren't prepared to make that type of trip. For those who are, you have Homeland to look forward to and in the meantime check out what other people have been making of her music over at Indaba Music, or even enter yourself - you might just end up being surprised by what you can accomplish when inspired.

April 9, 2010

DVD Review: Black, White, + Grey

Over the course of history the visual arts in the Western World have gone through any number of transformations. However, it was in the twentieth century when non-representational, or abstract, works began being created the cry "But is it art?" was heard most often. From Picasso's cubist reconstruction of form, the Sur-realists absurdist creations, to Jackson Pollock's spatter strewn canvases, preconceived notions of what made something a work of art went out the window. No longer would art merely glorify the wealthy and the sacred or be content with creating pretty pictures, so the definitions of what constituted art was, and is, continually being re-evaluated.

The history of art in the twentieth century looks to have been a series of explosions occurring one after another which refused to allow for any sort of complacency on the part of the observer. Just as you were getting used to the power and density of the work of somebody like Pollock, along comes the stripped down work of the Minimalists. In the post- war world of American art it seemed like every time you turned around there was something new either waiting to be discovered or to outrage. This was the world that curator, collector, and sometime patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff found himself in when, after a spell in advertising in the 1950's, he returned to university and graduated with a degree in art history.

If you've not heard of Sam Wagstaff don't feel too bad, it's doubtful very many people have. However a documentary movie now on DVD, Black White + Grey, from Art House Films, shows the key role he played in helping shape definitions of art. While he did curate some provocative shows, and champion the work of some new and influential artists early on in his career, it was how he almost single-handedly legitimized photography as one of the fine arts which makes him most important. Intertwined with his fascination with photography was his relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff not only became the largest single promoter of Mapplethorpe's work and ensured the success of his career, he was also his lover.
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As the film points out you couldn't have found two people more different from each other than Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff; the latter was from as aristocratic a family as you can get in America while the former was from a working class neighbourhood in Queens. Wagstaff was from the generation where gay men served as escorts for women who wanted a safe date and were useful when an extra was needed to make up for an odd number of guests at a dinner party. Mapplethorpe was part of the new generation who frequented the bath houses, wore leather, and didn't hide their sexuality. Some of those interviewed for the movie make it clear they felt Mapplethrope was only using Wagstaff for his money and influence in the art world. However, others, like Patti Smith, offer a different perspective.

Smith and Mapplethorpe had set up house together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1969 and she recalls Mapplethorpe coming home from a party one night all excited about a man he had met, Wagstaff, describing him as everything he ever wanted in a partner. Smith's description of the three of them together belies any of the more catty comments made by others, Though there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Mapplethorpe would never have had the meteoric success he enjoyed without Wagstaff's support, no matter what anybody might have thought of his subject matter, they were all in agreement there was no doubting Mapplethrope's talent. Wagstaff may have given him a leg up, but if he hadn't had the spark of creative genius somewhere inside of him he'd have never been able to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his time.

While Wagstaff had never been short of money, it was only in 1973 with the death of his mother that he inherited sufficient to be considered truly wealthy. It was at this time he began his obsessive collecting of photographs, a collection he was later to sell to the Getty Museum for millions of dollars. Smith describes the three of them going out hunting for photographs and how Wagstaff would literally fill brown paper shopping bags with them. As his collecting grew more refined he started attending auctions in both New York and London, buying anything from job lots to single rarities. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to his purchases as he would buy everything from portraits and landscapes, to photographs of those suffering from medical abnormalities.
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In the special feature included with film, a speech Wagstaff gave at a symposium on art at the Corcoran Museum, he talks about how being from the world of sculpture and paintings he had never considered photography to be in the same league artistically. However when you think about the technology involved with early photography - people having to hold poses for a period of time to allow the image to be etched onto a plate - and you look at some of the subject matter of the items he collected, you realize they were as carefully composed as any painting.

There's one shot in particular that brings that point home, an image of a group of young men gathered around a dock at various stages of going into and coming out of the water. If it had been taken recently we would have just considered it a candid snapshot that anybody could have taken. However, because of the time period it meant that each individual had to be carefully positioned and posed by the photographer to achieve the effect he was after. Art is about intent as much as anything else, and what Wagstaff was able to show with images like this one was the intent to create is just as viable in photography as in any other form of the visual arts.

Some may not remember, or even care, but one of the horrors of the 1980's was reading the obituaries and watching the death toll from AIDS rise. With his connections and money Wagstaff was able to keep the particulars of his illness secret until he died in 1987. Mapplethorpe, always the more open of the two, made no secret of what it was that eventually killed him in 1989. In fact the Mapplethorpe Foundation, founded after the artist's death, splits its funding between photographers and AIDS research. However as the movie makes clear their true legacy is the important role each man had in establishing photography in North America as more than just the poor cousin of painting and sculpture. While the movie does touch upon the more sensationalistic aspects of their relationship, and what it meant to Wagstaff personally in regards to the way he dealt with his sexuality, the major focus remains on their contributions to the world of art.

One of those interviewed in the movie commented on how at one time curators were hired more for their artistic abilities than their academic credentials. With the proliferation of new modes of expression in the sixties and seventies - from happenings, installations, to video and performance art - it took somebody with the eye of an artist to be able to "see" what was being attempted and to access its validity. Sam Wagstaff was one of that breed of curators. As he had so many times earlier in his career he saw something in both Robert Mapplethorpe, and the medium he worked in, that convinced him of there importance. Black, White, + Grey does a remarkable job of not only telling the story of their relationship, but in making sure that Wagstaff is given his due place in the history of modern art. His more notorious protégé's name might be more well known, but Wagstaff built the foundation upon which Mapplethorpe and other photographers have since been able to erect careers.

November 18, 2009

Music Review: Stace England And The Salt Kings - The Amazing Oscar Micheaux

While its well known how popular music has changed throughout the years, its not often that popular music is used to document the changing of the years or figures in history. Popular music is usually considered far too frivolous a thing to deal with the weighty matters of history. History books are always about the rich and powerful and the decisions they make affecting the type of people who listen to popular music - so what kind of contribution could it make to recounting the important events of the past?

The thing is, when history is only about the wealthy and powerful, it ends up being only told from their point of view. As a result people like Carnegie and Rockefeller become heroes while the union organizers who fought them and their thugs for things we now take for granted, like the forty hour work week and child labour laws, are still depicted as villains. For the longest time it was only through the songs of those eras by people like Joe Hill, framed on a murder charge and shot by Salt Lake Police, that versions of events aside from the ones in the history books existed. Recently there have been moves towards more populist versions of history as people like Howard Zinn try to recount events from different perspectives.

So, not only is there a tradition of popular music giving us a different perspective of history, there's now also more of an interest than ever in finding out more about when on "behind the scenes", so to speak, of the big events in history. Over the last few years Stace England and his band the Salt Kings have put out two albums, Cairo Illinois and Salt Sex Slaves, which have been done just that by recounting events that you won't find a record of in most history text books. With their latest album they've moved into the twentieth century in order to give us not just a glimpse of events but a person. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, available for download now and being released in the new year on Rankoutsider Records, introduces listeners to America's first major African-American film director.
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Between the years of 1919 and 1948, Oscar Micheaux was the only black homesteader in South Dakota, published seven novels, and wrote, produced and directed forty-four movies staring and about African-Americans. His first movie, The Homesteader, was based on his experiences in South Dakota, but if a movie about a black homesteader dealing with racism wasn't bad enough, Within Our Gates his second feature, depicted whites raping black women, attempting to lynch black families, and showed the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and vigilantes. While that may sound like a pretty accurate depiction to us, you have to realize that D. W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation released in 1919, depicted just the opposite; black men trying to ravish delicate white beauties, and the Klan heroically preserving white honour.

It wasn't only whites that Micheaux managed to upset, various black civic groups were unhappy with his rather unpleasant habit of attempting to always show the truth on screen. Some of his movies dealt with the very contentious issue of passing; where fair skinned black people attempted to "pass" as white people and not suffer the same discrimination as the darker complexioned members of their community. In fact God's Stepchildren, his 1933 movie on that subject, was picketed at its premier in Harlem by black community leaders and members of the communist party for being racist. However it was more usual for white communities to be unhappy with his work, whether from their depiction of a drunken and lecherous reverend in Body And Soul (which featured Paul Robeson's film debut), or his continuing to challenge Griffith's stereotypes by having African-Americans standing up to the Klan and running them off.

Each of the twelve tracks on England's release either deals with one of Micheaux's movies or provides us with a glimpse into the world in which these movies were released. While track one, "The Homesteader", taken from the name of both the novel and film based on Micheaux's experiences in South Dakota as the only black homesteader, talks about the struggles of settler to eke out a living, track two takes a somewhat different approach. "Vendome" was the name of the theatre in Chicago where Micheaux's film The Homesteader was shown and it brings to life the excitement African-American people must have felt about seeing themselves depicted accurately on the big screen. "Folks like us up on that silver screen/Two reels in we're going to be celebrating".
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Appropriately enough the final song on the disc is taken from the final movie of Micheaux's career, The Betrayal. While the director had hoped to create one last epic to cement his legacy, the three hour plus movie made in 1948 was universally panned. For the first time he received mainstream press attention, The New York Times, only to see them cut the movie to shreds, and even papers that had been his staunch allies turned on him. The song's lyrics reflect both how the director, by sticking to his guns, burnt a lot of bridges and alienated people during his career, and the results of those actions. "What will do when they have forgotten/All is forsaken and friends you have none/You can't go home over smouldering bridges...

As is usual for England and his band, with help from friends on some tracks, they employ from a multitude of genres to help tell the story. While the music might not be from the era represented by the disc, what they've chosen for each song has the appropriate feel to deliver the emotional message they are trying for. It might not have been the music that Micheaux would have chosen as the soundtrack for his silent movies, but it sure works as an introduction to it.

Once again England has taken an overlooked piece of American history, this time a person, and opened our eyes to what we've been missing. Intelligent and musically as interesting as ever, England and the Salt Kings make another convincing argument that popular music has a role to play in helping us tell our histories. With The Amazing Oscar Micheaux they have not only done the great service of ensuring a remarkable man is not overlooked, but are doing their best to rekindle interest in the work that makes him important. Aside from the CD, the band is also doing multimedia performances featuring clips his films (Micheaux clips accompanied by tracks from the CD are on line as well) and live performances of an original score to the movie Within Our Gates - a performance which won them praise at the Rome International Film Festival in 2009.

In the future, when they go to write the history of our times, we should hope the equivalent of Stace England And The Salt Kings are around to help ensure the complete story is told. Without people like them who knows what or who might be forgotten or overlooked.

October 3, 2009

Grief, Willy DeVille, Me, And Michael Jackson Too

The past year has seen the death of quite a number of public figures, with Michael Jackson's being the most prominent, but there have been others as well. However Jackson's was the death that prompted the worst excess of public grief. It seemed perfectly acceptable for people who had never met him to collapse into paroxysms of grief in public. Television cameras all over the world recorded scenes of people with tears pouring down their faces laying flowers at the impromptu shrines they had created for this person who they had never met. Nobody questioned their behaviour or wondered as to why they would have such a violent reaction to the death of someone who in recent years was better known for his suspicious activities than any artistic creations.

Earlier this year my wife's uncle passed away leaving behind his wife and two adopted children. They had been married for more then thirty years and in that time had grown inseparable - one never thought of one without mentioning the other. So it was perfectly understandable that she was devastated when he died. Yet, even at his funeral there were whispers of - why doesn't she control herself, who does she think she's trying to impress - in response to her grief. However, the real whispering didn't start until a couple months after his death and she was still liable to burst into tears at any time.

My wife and I were at a family dinner some months after her uncle died and the subject of her aunt came up. We hadn't been in contact with her since the funeral so we asked how she was doing. I was shocked by the vehemence of the disgust that was expressed over the fact that she was still crying over the loss of her husband. "She gets one glass of wine into her and she's off" was said with great scorn.

I couldn't believe it, the woman had lost the person who had been the biggest part of her world for close to thirty years and people were being impatient with her because she was still grieving. I couldn't help thinking how I'd feel if my wife was the one who had died and how I'd be reacting. How could they expect her to be able turn off the grief she was feeling from her loss as if it were something she had any control over? I would have been more concerned if she hadn't still been crying over her loss. Yet here were this group of so-called adults, supposedly her family and support, sitting around nodding wisely and saying it was time for her to get on with her life.

According to who I want to know? As I was trying to figure out what was so wrong with her crying about losing the man she'd loved only a few months ago I caught hold of a key phrase floating around amongst the conversation, "It's just so embarrassing". For a second I couldn't figure out what was so embarrassing, and then I realized they meant the fact that the poor woman was still crying about the the loss of the love of her life. Her grief was too real for them and they didn't know what to do about it. Why it didn't occur to them to comfort her I wondered instead of criticizing her for being upset?

When the conversation turned to Michael Jackson a short while latter and comments were made about how moving it was to see all the people crying for him, I was even more confused. In one breath they were criticizing a women for crying because her heart was breaking, and with the other they are exclaiming at how wonderful it was to see people crying over a total stranger. Why was the one so acceptable and the other wasn't? What made the one moving while the other was embarrassing? Why was it more acceptable for there to be a public outpouring of grief for a famous person than public grief from a private person?

I think people are scared of grief when it comes too close them and they don't know what to do about it. It's one thing to watch it on television, but another thing all together to sit and have it on display in your living room. There's no such thing as controlling your grief either - you either feel something or you don't - and if you do why should you be made to feel ashamed for feeling?

When Nina DeVille wrote to tell me that her husband Willy had been diagnosed as having stage four pancreatic cancer last May she said "we try to pretend everything is normal, but nothing will ever be normal again". A part of you has been ripped away for ever and you're expected to carry on as if everything was normal, or to get over it and get on with your life. How can anything ever be normal again? Is it even possible?

While I still don't pretend to understand the mass hysteria that surrounded Michael Jackson's death, Willy DeVille's death this past August has given me a little more appreciation for people's need to share their grief over the loss of a public figure with others. In June I started a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the person who started the petition I had to make an e-mail address available and as a result I've been hearing from individuals from all over the world about how Willy's music affected them.

I have to admit I wondered why people would write a total stranger in order to tell them about their grief, but after a while I simply accepted the honour they were according me. Maybe they had read some of the things I had written about Willy and realized I too was moved by him personally as well as professionally. Maybe because I had interviewed him on occasion and was in contact with his wife Nina periodically they felt I was the closest they could get to telling Willy how they felt about him. I don't know, but I do know that I heard from people who had been close to Willy when they were young, people who had never known him, or people like me whose lives had intersected his briefly outside the music and were changed forever by the contact.

I then remembered back to 1980 when John Lennon had been killed, and how I had gone down to Nathan Philip's Square in Toronto Ontario to join thousands of others standing around in the cold to remember and celebrate John's life. Whatever it was that I was looking for there that night I didn't find. Whoever had organized it made sure to play the right music and there were speeches from people like Ronnie Hawkins who had known Lennon, but it didn't do anything for me. I realize now it was because we were all there as individuals and nothing was done to bring us together or make us feel we weren't alone in our grief. The person standing next to me could have been feeling the same things as me, but the event was so impersonal I never found out.

So when I received an e-mail from somebody wanting to know if I could help organize a memorial for DeVille in New York City, I was only too glad to have an excuse to pass - I live in Canada and can't travel to the States for a variety of reasons - because I couldn't envision it being of benefit to anyone. However I've recently had cause to change my mind as I've found out more about who the people are behind the event and why they are doing it. Three people, from different parts of North America, tied together by their appreciation of Willy DeVille's music have decided to meet in New York City on October 10th/09 in Tompkin's Square Park on the Avenue B side at three in the afternoon to remember Willy and have invited anyone who is interested in doing the same to join them. If you can't make it to the park, or if the weather sucks, they plan on meeting up at Bar On A, 170 Avenue A, where their will be white roses for everybody and Willy's music played through-out the night.

It doesn't sound like there will be any speeches, just a group of like minded people getting together to tell stories and talk about what Willy meant to them. Missing somebody is a very personal matter and we don't often have the opportunity to talk about why we loved somebody or why we miss them even with those who supposedly care about us. I think of my wife's aunt and how much she would appreciate the opportunity to sit around with a group of people one night listening to them talk about her late husband and what he meant to them. I think how it would be nice for her to have the chance to do the same with people who won't be judging her for feeling pain at her loss, and I can see how this memorial for Willy DeVille could be of benefit where others haven't been.

Grief is nothing to be afraid of but nor should it be the spectator sport that it seems to have become in our mass media world. When you lose somebody you care about nobody has the right to tell you how to feel or when you should "get over it", nor should you be made to feel guilty for your grief. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn't have your best interest at heart no matter what they say. Only you know the size of the hole that was left in your heart, everybody else can only guess at it.

For those interested in attending the Willy DeVille Memorial in New York City on October 10th you may RSVP to WDcelebration@gmail.com, but feel free to show up whether you do or not

August 29, 2009

The Death Of Album Art

I can still remember the first record I ever bought. It was Christmas of 1969 and I had received a toy racing car that hadn't worked as a present so I went downtown to exchange it for something else either on Boxing Day or the day after. I can't remember how it came about that I decided I didn't want another racing car, but wanted a record instead but I ended up buying a copy of The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

I can still remember the feel of that album in my hands, and looking down at the four of them dressed in their band uniforms on the front cover and the lyrics written out on the back. It was still in the days of the Beatles being on Capital Records so the label at the centre of the disc was an ugly orange with the Capital dome in Washington sketched on it. In those days records were solid chunks of vinyl, not the flimsy pieces of shit they became by the end of the 1980's when they were being phased out by the record companies. So it didn't wobble or shake when you touched it, but just sat there big and sturdy. It made you feel like the music could last forever.

I held onto that album even when others were lost and destroyed over the years, and it wasn't until in the last few years that I actually finally got rid of it. It probably hadn't been playable for the last five years I owned it, but it was the first record I ever bought. It became especially important to me when they started getting rid of LP's and only selling recordings on tapes and CDs. The quality of records went down the tubes to the point where you could probably only play them once before they would start skipping so my old friend was a memento of how things used to be better when it came to LP's.

The worse thing about getting rid of LP's was how purchasing a CD or a tape diminished the experience of buying music. Instead of picking up a package that measured about a foot by a foot, all of a sudden you're looking at something that's maybe five inches by five inches. Bands that had looked larger than life in their cover art were now reduced to inconsequential figures surrounded by information you needed an electron microscope to read. Yet if I had thought those were dark days, if was only because I hadn't yet experienced the horror to come: downloading.

Now I couldn't give a rat's ass about any of the ethical questions surrounding downloads - the music industry squawking about people's morals evokes as much sympathy from me as a Klansman complaining he got his white sheet dirty from burning a cross on someone's lawn. These are the same people who used to do their best to ensure that artist's signed away the sweat of their hearts for as little money as possible after all. Anyway most of them jumped on the bandwagon as soon as they figured out how they could control the music and saw how much money it would save them.

When I first started reviewing music in 2005 part of the enjoyment of the process was having the CD delivered to my home. This isn't something I receive money for very often, if ever, so actually receiving the disc with it's packaging as a memento of the experience was the only reward open. Now, instead of sending out even promotional copies of a disc, a bare bones item without any of its final packaging, most companies are requiring reviewers to download the music from secure sites, or worst yet only letting them listen to it on line.

I don't know about anyone else, but I don't own a mp3 player and I'm not about to run out and buy one either (see above about not getting paid), and I don't really want to sit around tied to my computer in order to listen to music, which means I have to buy blank discs and burn the music to disc in order to write a review. Yet the worst thing is what we've lost because of this experiencing the excitement of holding a new piece of music in your hands. The anticipation brought on by looking at the cover, reading the song titles before listening, looking at the art work and trying to guess what it might have to do with the music. But most of all, losing the connection that you used to feel to the performer when you'd see their face- or faces - looking back up at you from the cover or the inside spread.

Even the meanest packaging that would come from the smallest of companies allowed you some sort of connection to whomever it was you were reviewing, but with downloads its gone completely. It's like the music all of a sudden exists in a vacuum. Oh sure some of labels have information packages you can download to your computer as well as the tracks, but it's not the same thing to look at something on your monitor as holding it in your hands.

There's something about the attitude behind asking a reviewer to download music that bothers me - it's like they're the ones doing us the favour by letting us listen to the music. However we're the ones giving them free publicity not the other way around. We're providing them with a service for which they don't have to pay a cent - making it possible for thousands, potentially millions, of people to know about their product. How much would they have to pay for that kind of advertising?

What really gets me is that it's the biggest companies who are the worst for this, while the small independents still send you out not only the final CD, but information sheets and press releases. It feels like the big companies figure because there are so many reviewers on the Internet it doesn't matter how they treat us and are cynically counting on enough individuals being thrilled at being "allowed" to download music before anyone else that they will still get their free advertising.

Yesterday I received an LP in the mail from a small company in Germany. That means they paid for a record to be safely shipped across the Atlantic Ocean on the off chance that I might own a turntable and be willing to review it for them. As I was standing there holding it, looking at the packaging, I felt the same stirrings of excitement that I had felt some forty years ago when I held my first ever record and it made me realize all over again what we've lost with progress. I'm no Luddite filled with hatred for machines as I cheerfully use my computer, the Internet, a DVD player, and other modern electronic convenience, but I can't stand to see how they are used on occasion to make our lives less then they once were. In the future, if I'm offered a link to an Internet address instead of a CD, I'll politely ask for a hard copy. If told they aren't available, I won't be either.

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
Time Life
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

A Thank You To Willy DeVille

It was on May 17th that I received the e-mail that broke my heart. Willy DeVille's wife Nina wrote to let me know that Willy had been diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic cancer. At the time she had asked me to keep it to myself, but as she's since gone public with the information at Willy's web site I'm free to talk about it. We knew Willy was sick earlier in the year, but at the time the doctors thought it was Hepatitis C, and it was only when they were testing him prior to beginning treatment they discovered the cancer. It doesn't look like there's much they can do for him aside from ensuring his comfort. Nina assures me that they have hospice people in making sure he's not feeling too much pain and that he's being well looked after.

I came to know Willy outside of his music first back in 2006 when I him for the site just after the release of his first DVD Live In The Lowlands and his first studio recording in a number of years, Crow Jane Alley. It was an amazing experience as we talked for well over two hours about art, music, and life. If there was ever a performer who had every right to be bitter it is Willy, as his music career has been marked by record company stupidity and indifference. Capital, his first label, didn't know what to do with his music - in fact they shelved Le Chat Blue, an album Rolling Stone called the fifth best of 1980, and music historian Glenn A Baker has called the tenth best rock album of all time, until sales of the French import version became so high they were embarrassed into releasing it.

Yet in spite of a career where stuff like that was the norm, and a personal life marked by hardship and sadness (his second wife committed suicide and overcoming addictions) he still retained his passion and love for music and life. I had a great time with Willy, but I figured that was the end of that, and I would treasure the memories of that conversation for the rest of my life. However, in December of 2007 I received an e-mail from the German edition of Rolling Stone asking me if I was interested in updating the original interview for publication in their February 2008 edition. They were planning a special feature on Willy prior to a mini tour of Europe he was doing that spring to publicize his 2008 release Pistola. Instead of merely updating the interview I took the opportunity to get in touch with Willy again and do a whole newinterview which I then combined with the first, and wrote a couple of side bar articles, all of which ended up in the magazine. When combined with photos the special "Willy DeVille" section ended up being around fifteen pages long.
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So Willy was responsible for my first paying writing gig, and it was a big one. He and Nina were really happy with what I had written, and we've been keeping in touch since then. In fact Nina was able to direct some more work my way by recommending me for the job of writing the liner notes for a new DVD of Willy's, Live At Montreux in '94. Coincidentally, it was only shortly there after that I was offered the contract to write the book I have coming out this fall. I wrote Nina and told her that she and Willy were my good luck charms as the DVD liner notes had led to bigger and better things.

It was shortly after that we were writing a press announcement about Willy having to cancel his touring and recording plans for 2009 because of having to be treated for Hepatitis C. Unfortunately all that's changed for the worse now, and when Nina contacted me in May it was to ask if I would write something for after he went, and I still plan on doing that. However, I wanted to do something for him while he was still alive that would let him know what he's meant to people all over the world and how much his music has impacted on those who've listened and appreciated what he offered.

Willy released sixteen albums either under his own name or under the Mink DeVille banner; there have also been fourteen compilation albums of his material released by various labels around the world; four DVDs of concerts that he performed; and at least three live albums that I know of, including the great recording Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio Live In Berlin which featured some of the most soulful music you'll ever hear. His music has been used in three movies including Princess Bride (for which he garnered an Academy Award nomination for the song "Storybook Love"), Cruising, and Death Proof; and he's appeared on tribute albums for people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders.
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According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio, for a performer to be considered for induction it must have been at least twenty-five years since they released their first recording and they must have made a significant contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll. Well as far as I can see Willy meets all those criteria as his first recording was released in 1977 and he's been producing some of the best, and most soulful, rock and roll ever since. His album of New Orleans music, Victory Mixture, alone should qualify him for the job it did in bringing the music of that city to a whole new audience in North America and Europe.

Yet for some reason, while his contemporaries from CBGBs the Ramones have been inducted, Willy DeVille has not. In an attempt to redress this inequity, and in an effort to create a lasting memorial to his great talent, I've started a petition asking that Willy be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. If you're interested in supporting this effort please sign the petition and ensure that this great singer and songwriter is not forgotten after he's gone.

While this hardly seems adequate when compared to how much enjoyment Willy has provided people over the years with his music it's at least a tangible way to show our appreciation. It's a start anyway, and perhaps, like many other artists before him, his reputation will continue to grow after he's no longer with us and more and more people will come to know what I've known for years, just how special he is. It's only a pity that it will mean him being taken away from us for him to receive the appreciation he deserves. In a perfect world he'd still be with us and be able to show up for his own induction ceremony.

I know that I would trade all the signatures in the world for the chance to see him perform live, or even to hear his voice coming down through my telephone wire a year from now, but barring a miracle neither of those events are going to be happening. My heart is a lot heavier these days knowing Willy is not going to be with us for much longer, and while this effort won't keep him around any longer, it's a start in saying thanks. I'm not ready to say good bye yet so thanks will have to due for now.

June 24, 2009

Music Review: Willie McBlind - Bad Thing

When you look at a piece of music written out on a scale have you ever wondered how those particular notes came to represent the sounds we hear when somebody plays the piece of music written in front of you? In part it's based on the way instruments are tuned so they play a particular sound when a string, or its equivalent depending on the instrument, is depressed and vibrated. The majority of our popular music has used what's known as the Twelve Tone Equal Temperament system of tuning in order to create specific scales and octaves that allow composers to arrange those sounds into the recognizable patterns we call music.

It stands to reason there are other sounds, or notes, that exist outside of it that could just as easily be used to make music. However when they are played in concert with Twelve Tone notes, they sound so wrong we call them out of tune. Yet, there are many music traditions through-out the world that make use of those sounds without a problem, we're one of the few cultures that limit ourselves to only using those twelve tones. According to the people behind Freenote Music microtonal music, music that uses those notes not employed under the Twelve Tone system, is just as viable and can be achieved through the use of what they call Just Intonation, tunings based on what they call the pure notes of the naturally occurring Harmonic Series.

Through the simple expedient of adding more frets to the neck of a guitar or a bass, playing a fretless instrument, using alternate fingering on a wind instrument, or by experimenting with open tunings, musicians can redefine the notes they play. When a string is plucked on the guitar more than one note is actually sounded because of the harmonics created by the vibrations - how many different possibilities exist within that one resonation for creating new notes that we currently don't use in our music? Well the folk at Freenote produce records by groups like Willie McBlind, who have just released their second album of blues music, Bad Thing, using Just Intonation tuning giving us a chance to hear some of the possibilities that this systems opens up..
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Willie McBlind are Jon Catler on 64 tone Just Intonation and fretless guitars, and vocals, Babe Borden on vocals, Neville L'Green bass, and Lorne Watson drums and percussion. I was curious as to whether someone like me who doesn't have a musician's ear for music, I couldn't tell you what key a song was in by listening to it, would notice an appreciable difference in the music they were playing. In other words, does it really matter whether you play the blues using the old Twelve Tone system or embrace the new Just Intonation system? On the other hand, would it still be the blues if it wasn't played using Twelve Tone - would the sound be changed so much that it would no longer trigger the same reactions that you'd get listening to Muddy Watters and B B King?

As to the first question, the answer is yes there is a definite difference in the sound of this band from that of your normal electric blues band. While you won't really make out any difference in the rhythm section, as L'Green and Watson do the needful in holding the music together. It's in the guitars and vocals where it becomes obvious that something different is happening with the music as both instruments create unexpected sounds. It's noticeable right off the top of the disc as "13 O' Clock Blues", the opening track, opens with sustained guitar work by Catler. While he plays familiar enough sounding patterns, he appears to be filling the space with more and different sounds than what you'd normally hear.

Things become even more interesting when vocalist Borden joins him and you really begin to notice just how much they have expanded upon the range of a typical blues song. Under any circumstances Borden has a great voice for the blues, powerful, expressive, and a tremendous range. She also has the control required to find and sing the notes outside of the normal scale without sounding unnatural or strained. Not only does this give her voice an added dimension when it comes to how she sounds. those extra notes seem to give her access to greater emotional depth. Listen to her on the eighth track, their cover of Willie Dixon's "It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace)" and you'll hear what I mean.

The hardest part of listening to any of the songs is that are notes both Borden and Catler hit that sound discordant because we're just not used to hearing them. However the fact that they are in harmony with each other and what the band is playing soon offsets that initial discomfort. Which begins to answer the second question as to whether what they're singing is still the blues. While there is no denying that they don't sound like the blues you've been used to hearing, there's also no denying that what they're playing is the blues as they generate the same emotional reactions as any tunes I've heard play by any blues band.

What was refreshing was the absence of the cliches dotting the work of many electric blues players, especially those with a tendency to play fast and loud. With the additional notes at their disposal it only makes sense that they are able expand upon what both a guitar and a voice can do. Even better is that they don't waste it by doing silly things like having longer or faster guitar solos or showing off of any sort. They have taken a genre already rich in emotion and found a way to make it a deeper and more fulfilling experience for both the listener and I'm sure those playing as well. Having more notes at their disposal seems to have given them the equivalent of giving a painter new colours that allow him or her to give extra texture and depth to their creation.

I have to admit that when I first read about the idea of going beyond Twelve Tone for playing the blues I was intrigued, but also doubtful as to whether it would really make that much of a difference for the listener who isn't a trained musician. However, after only a couple of listens to Willie McBride's Bad Thing it's obvious that breaking free of the constraints of Twelve Tone scales is just as liberating for the blues as its proven for any other form of music. They've brought new depth of meaning and emotion to an already passionate genre making it blues as you've never heard it before, and all the better for it.

June 10, 2009

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

May 16, 2009

DVD Review: Deflating The Elephant

In the wake of the first Gulf War Noam Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, broke down the steps taken by George Bush senior's administration to took to ensure public support for their invasion of Iraq. Manufacturing Consent, first a book and then a documentary movie of the same name, showed how through manipulating the media, out right lies, and other means, the administration ensured that first the media and then the American public were deceived into giving their consent for the war. As a linguist he was naturally interested in how the administration used the English language to assist them in their efforts, and how phrases like collateral damage, among others, were used as part of their strategy.

While it shares the same concerns about the use of English as Manufacturing Consent, Deflating The Elephant, coming to DVD on May 19th and being distributed by Cinema Libre, is looking at a far bigger picture than just one set of circumstances. Like the earlier movie the central figure, George Lakoff, is a linguistics professor interested in how language has been used to shape public opinion. His topic is how the language used by American conservatives over the last thirty years to describe liberals, or moderates, has gradually changed the public's perception of liberalism being a force for positive change to being something that has a negative impact on their lives.

Introduced by actor Sean Penn, the movie has Lakoff being interviewed, and then talking about, how conservative think tanks have focused on framed messaging to demean liberals and liberalism. According to Lakoff language is influenced by framing, the process of associating a word with a concept, and in turn our way of thinking, our ideology, and our behaviour, is shaped by the way in which concepts are used and repeated. Similar to Pavolov's famous dogs phrases such as "war on terror", "tax relief", and "tax and spend liberals" have been used sufficiently that they now result in a conditioned response that adheres to conservative ideology. Lakoff contends that this is how America has been changed from what was basically a progressive country to one with decided conservative leanings.
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In case you have any doubts as to which side of the argument Lakoff falls on, liberal or conservative, he makes it obvious when he starts to outline how progressives screwed up by ignoring what the conservatives were doing and not challenging their disinformation campaign. The real give away though is the fact that the second part of the movie is dedicated to explaining how liberals can go about countering the negative perceptions that have been created about them and their policies. This involves a detailed analysis of how framing is created and the means to change the perception that liberals are elitists who given half a chance would waste tax payers money while allowing the country to be over run by terrorists.

I've no doubts of the veracity of Professor Lakoff's arguments or his theories on language. Nor do I have any trouble believing there was a concentrated effort on the part of conservative think tanks in the United States to demonize liberalism. I also agree with both his assessment that liberals failed miserably by not taking the threat these think tanks represented seriously, and his recommendation that liberals need to start getting their hands dirty by actively responding in order to counter the impression of liberalism that's been created. In fact I would think the mood generated by the current administrations represents a golden opportunity for rehabilitating liberalism in the United States.

Unfortunately Deflating The Elephant has to be one of the most breathtakingly boring examples of film I've seen in a long time. While what Professor Lakoff has to say is in of itself interesting and informative, the manner in which the material was presented was stupefying. There's nothing at all interesting about watching someone sitting behind a desk talking directly into the camera no matter what he or she is talking about. The medium is not called motion pictures for nothing you know.
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In fact a film like this one does more to reenforce liberals as a bunch of elitist intellectuals than any conservative propaganda. Watching Lakoff lecture from behind his desk on a subject that ninety per-cent of the population neither knows nor cares anything about would only confirm in most people's minds that liberals aren't concerned about what really matters. What does any of this have to do with making sure a person can feed their family? How does this relate to the struggle to pay medical bills? There's no effort made by the filmmakers to put the information into a context that details the impact the distortion of liberalism has had on people's life.

One of the claims that's made about the film is that its an invaluable learning tool for anyone who wants to learn how to read between the lines and recognize the real meaning behind framed messaging. The only trouble is that hardly anyone is going to want to sit through it to learn what's being offered. When I read about the movie, I thought the topic would be fascinating, and was hoping for something along the lines of what had been done with Manufacturing Consent. Instead, even the introductions to the various sections by Sean Penn are stilted (you can almost see his eyes reading off the teleprompter) and the movie as a whole was an exercise in tedium to sit through.

"Preaching to the converted" is an expression meaning that the material being presented isn't going to appeal to anyone who doesn't already believe in what's being said and no attempt is being made to change other people's minds. While there is nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement now and then, Deflating The Elephant doesn't even work on that level as the material is presented in a manner that would put friend or foe to sleep.

January 31, 2009

Music CD/Book Review: Various Performers Money Will Ruin Everything Second Edition

Almost every week without fail you can read somewhere about how the end of the CD is nigh. Digital downloads of Mp3s are no longer the way of the future, they are now. All those big cumbersome CD players are being replaced by teeny little I-pod clones that can hold hundreds if not thousands more songs than one 700mb CD ever could. At one time the downloading of music from the Internet was the province of hackers and considered an illegal activity. Now every major record company has got in on the act and new releases are routinely available to download from I-Tunes long before they come available in hard copy.

Of course this saves them tons of money, as there's no longer the need to create physical packaging. If an item is being downloaded what purpose is served by spending a small bundle on cover art or liner notes - simply post the stuff to a web page once and be done with it. Well maybe I'm old fashioned, but one of the things that I still miss most about LPs (Long Playing records for those folk under thirty who don't remember what came before CDs) is the great album art. CDs are such dinky little things that what you get is a postage stamp compared to the huge expanse of colour that covered LPs. Yet at least with the CDs you get something you can hold on to while listening to your music - some tangible proof that somebody, somewhere, went to some effort to produce something.

It turns out that I'm not as alone or weird as I thought I was in those thoughts as the independent Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is proving with the release of Money Will Ruin Everything: The Second Edition on February 3/09. Gathered together on two CDs, a poster, and an accompanying book, they are releasing their second package celebrating the various performers signed to their label. The two CDs contain samples from the various groups and individuals they've recorded and the book is chock full of interviews, articles, photos, album art, and other mementoes related to the past five years of their recording history.
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To be honest I'd never heard of the label until I received the press release from their North American distributor, Forced Exposure, and had no idea what kind of music they produced. What attracted me was the fact that this little label had the balls to produce this type of package when nearly everyone else is going in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I had to know more about this label produce that they would go to this much effort to celebrate their performers and who are the people responsible for making it happen.

According to an interview that's published in the book with label owner Rune Kristofferson it sounds like its pretty much a one man show with Rune doing all the work himself. Although it means he's unable to sign or record all the bands he wants to, it's a very deliberate effort on his part to keep the label small and not become another big corporation where money is the bottom line. I think that the sub-title of the collection, But The Music Goes On Forever tells you all you need to know about what motivates Rune and his efforts.

When I requested a copy of Money Will Ruin Everything I didn't know what to expect, but I thought it might be a collection of experimental and electronic music that verged on the edge of dissonance. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that although some of the music fell into that category, there was also a great deal of diversity to be found among the groups and individuals signed to the label. From the ethereal sounds of Susanna And The Magical Orchestra's version of Henry Purcell's "When I Am Laid" to Shining's cover of the old King Crimson cut "21st Century Schizoid Man" there's something here for every ear to listen to and be amazed by.

The overall impression you get from listening to the two disc set is that Rune Grammofon is a label where it's the quality of the music that matters, not the kind of music being played. Considering it's only one person making the decisions behind what gets recorded each year you'd expect some sort of pattern to develop that would give you an indication of his personal preferences when it comes to music. Instead what you get is a wider range of music than anything you'd find on any label with multiple producers and talent scouts.

As for what attracted me to request a copy of this collection in the first place, the packaging, that doesn't disappoint either. The book is an amazing collection of images from the last five years of Rune Grammofon's existence including everything from examples of some of the most interesting cover art you've seen together in one place, images of Oslo Norway where most of the recordings have happened, and photos of most of the folk who appear on the compilation. The articles that have been written for the package reflect how so many different people mourn the passing of cover art, and respect and admire the work that Rune Kristofferson is doing with his little label.

There's also a wonderfully chaotic atmosphere to the layout that captures the free spirit of the label. Absolutely nothing about anything you see, or hear, in Money Will Ruin Everything says "corporate", which to my mind is a good thing when it comes to music, especially popular music.

In this day and age when less is increasingly becoming the adage of all music production companies and album art is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, it's taken a small independent label from Norway, Rune Grammafon, to remind us what a joy it is to have something tangible to go with the music you love. Money Will Ruin Everything The Second Edition proves that not only does music not have to all sound the same, but you can still make the experience of purchasing it a pleasure for more than just one of your senses.

January 14, 2009

Book Review: Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation By Martin Millar

The phrase, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?, might have been invented for Alby Starvation. Alby, the title character in Martin Millar's 1987 debut novel Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation being re-issued by Soft Skull Press, and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, on February 9th/09, worries constantly about his health, the hit man that the Milk Marketing Board has set on him, the Chinese gang leader trying to find him, and which of his friends and acquaintances are after his comic collection.

While those friends of Alby's who he's still talking to, well not really friends but some folk who buy drugs from him, tend to think that it's all in his head, the reality is that the Milk Marketing Board really have set a hit man on him and a mysterious Chinese gentleman is trying to get in touch with him. So he stays huddled in his apartment with only his hamster and his comics to keep him company watching as his reflection in the mirror looks gradually sicker and sicker. His doctor won't believe that there's anything wrong with Alby - but than again he's only waiting for Alby to die so he can scoop up his complete set of Silver Surfer comics.

It was Alby's health, and that bastard doctor, that was the cause of all his trouble to begin with. Certain he was dying, he wasn't able to keep food in and was gradually wasting away, he went to his doctor only to be told that it was nerves. It was only his buddy Stacey's suggestion that he might have food allergies that saved his life as far as Alby is concerned, unfortunately it also signed his death warrant with the Milk Marketing Board. You see Alby turned out to be allergic to milk and once he stopped drinking milk he got instantly better.
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That would have been fine and dandy, but he had to go and tell somebody else suffering from similar ailments and she got better instantly too. Which might have been okay as well except she had a friend who was also very sick and asked Alby to talk to him, and he turned out to be a reporter for the local community newspaper and wrote a little article about being allergic to milk. That's when things began to snowball, and Alby eventually found himself the head of an anti-milk campaign that galvanized all of Britain because it turned out there were millions of people across the country allergic to milk suffering horribly.

When the sale figures for milk go south, the Milk Marketing Board turns the matter over to their dirty tricks department - modelled after the CIA - to sort it out. With no time to lose they decide the best course of action is to nip things in the bud and take out the person at the top of the anti-milk campaign - Alby. By sheer luck the first person sent out on the job is "Born Again" on the way to kill Alby, and in a fit of remorse for past killings tips him off that he's a target for assassination. You'd think that nothing could make a paranoid happier than finding out somebody is really out to get him, instead it makes Alby all the more miserable.

Now Alby isn't the only odd soul living London's Brixton district during the waning days of punk in the mid-eighties. They're are the speed freaks he supplies; the archaeology professor posing as a city employee so he can dig up the street in his search for a lost crown said to be buried in Brixton; the mysterious Chinese gentleman who used to be in charge of Heroin quality control in the Golden Triangle; the psychic nurse who doesn't know she's psychic; and of course the second hit man hired by the Milk Marketing Board, who turns out to be a woman named June.

With the story bouncing around like a pinball game on acid, (or is it like you being on acid watching a pin ball game) what with the plot bouncing off one character or story line after another and back again, and with no clue as to whether somethings happening in the past or the present, it's initially hard to quite follow what's going on in Alby's life. In some ways its akin to reading a cubist painting by Picasso where instead of merely seeing a single view of the subject the artist shows you all sides simultaneously in what looks like a an insane jigsaw puzzle of body parts.
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The past and the present appear in adjacent paragraphs offering no clue as to which is which; we see the world through the eyes of characters who are on the periphery of the story; and intermingled with all of that we have Alby's disjointed narrative of events. Yet out of this seemingly random scattered collection of information a picture gradually forms of Alby's life, the lives of those around him, and the general air of desperation to find meaning to existence that grips so many of us.

Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation is the flip side of the popular image of punk as a revitalizing movement for social change as we meet the ones who came for the party that never realized it wasn't just about loud music, getting drunk, and doing speed so they could dance all night. Like the dregs of the hippies on heroin after the days of flower power and peace and love had passed, the characters of Alby and his friends are pathetic lost souls with no direction who wanted something for nothing and ended up going nowhere fast. Whiles there's a dark humour to Ably's neuroses, in the end it's just sort of sad and pathetic.

What saves the book from being ultimately depressing though is Millar's sense of the absurd, for the story line is right out of Monty Python's school of taking an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. That Alby is not crazy and the Milk Marketing Board has really hired an assassin to kill him because he has adversely affected milk sales across Britain, is merely the tip of the very peculiar iceberg contained within the pages of the book. While it might not be to everyone's cup of tea, if you're willing to put up with the slightly bitter taste and the twist and turns of the style,Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation will never bore you and will continually surprise you. That alone makes it worth reading.

January 11, 2009

Interview: Author Indu Sundaresan

When I began editing the on line magazine "Epic India Magazine" a little over two years ago I had read very few books by Indian authors. Since it was meant to be an arts and culture magazine I figured that was a situation that needed to change. Thankfully India is now probably the largest English speaking market for books in the world, and it's becoming increasingly easier to find works written by Indian writers.

With each different author you get a new perspective and a fresh voice telling you another bit of the story that is India. One of the things that comes clear from those writing about contemporary India is that she is a country going through a period of painful transition. While shining office towers and IT companies might be common place in downtown Mumbai, so are three generations of one family living in a shack without running water a mile away in the same city.

In her collection of short stories The Convent Of Little Flowers Indu Sundaresan gave us glimpses of lives that have felt the brush of change, and also showed how powerful the forces resisting change can be. Known for her historical fiction, these stories were her first foray's into her native country's current circumstance and I was intrigued as to what brought about her change of venue - so to speak.
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With that in mind I contacted Ms. Sundaresan and she very generously gave of her time to answer my questions about this collection of stories, her writing, and her life in general. If you haven't all ready read any of her work, I hope this encourages you to at least pick up her collection of short stories if not one of her novels


You were born in India and came to the United States to finish your studies, can you fill in some of the biographical details from before you came to the US, and maybe explain how it is you ended up staying there, or if it was always your intent to emigrate?

My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, so I’m the proverbial “army” brat and spent most of my childhood moving around India, from one base to another. When I finished my undergraduate degree in economics, I decided to apply for graduate school, went to the University of Delaware, and ended up with two graduate degrees. I don’t know that it was my intention to stay on here in the US in the beginning. But I started writing fiction very soon after, and have found a community of writers through classes and conferences that I would not have had access to in India—being here in the US is a blessing for my career as a writer.


Did you find that you had a period of adjustment that you had to go through when you first arrived in the States, and was there anything you found particularly difficult to acclimatise your self to?

In the beginning, it was all very new, very interesting, thought provoking at times. And I am a writer (though I didn’t know it then), so I watched and listened, took notes in my head, never really let anything shock me too much.

Perhaps the funniest thing to happen was the day I landed in NYC. As I was wheeling my luggage out of customs and immigration, tired from the long flight and somewhat disoriented, a man leaning on his cart whistled and said, “Com’ere, baby, give us a hug and a kiss.” I remember that I laughed and shook my head and ran out of the terminal, but that was my introduction to America!

How did you first become interested in telling stories - in writing?

Not until I had finished graduate school and had a story in my head. I decided to write a novel, so we bought a computer and I wrote one. And then I wrote another novel, and then I wrote my first published novel, The Twentieth Wife. I don’t recall being intimidated by the process then, though I know now just how difficult it is, which was in some senses advantageous to me—I tell this story of my beginnings of a writer as a very simple tale, and it was thus. I didn’t think I couldn’t do it, so...I wrote my novels.

There's a long tradition of story telling in India, one generation passing along the stories they learned to the next generation. How do you see yourself as a writer fitting into that tradition - if at all?

My father and my paternal grandfather were storytellers, and they loved having an audience. I remember that my father would make up bedtime stories for me, two sagas about a horse named Silver and an elephant named Jumbo. He also told my sisters and me stories of the kings and queens of India when we went to visit all the forts and palaces around the country, but at bedtime, his favourite trick was to tell us only part of the story and then switch off the light, leaving us to think (until the next day or until he was free again in the evenings) of how the stories ended, or how the plot resolved itself. My father taught me how to tell stories in my head long before I came to put them down on paper.

In the afterward to In The Convent Of Little Flowers you make mention of how either a news story or a casual remark was the inspiration for some of the stories. It sounded like this wasn't a way you had worked before, where have you previously found your inspiration for your work?

The stories of In The Convent Of Little Flowers are contemporary, so their sources are those you mention.

My first two novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, are based on the life of Nur Jahan, a seventeenth century empress of Mughal India. Her story I stumbled upon while I was in graduate school (though I ought to have known this better from my school days; I was an indifferent student of history). One evening, homesick for family and friends in India, I went to the university library, typed in “India” in the subject keyword at the computer, and went to the section that housed books on India. I returned to my apartment with an armload of books, one of which was a book on Mughal harems and Nur Jahan. It wasn’t until I had finished my first two unpublished novels, that I began to think of what I had read about her, checked out that book again, researched her life more thoroughly and wrote The Twentieth Wife and its sequel.
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When Deepa Mehta was filming Water - a movie about the harsh ways in which widows are still treated by some elements of Indian society - she was attacked (literally) by extremists. Do you worry about any, or has there been any, backlash in regards to some of the stories in this collection

Some of the topics I describe in this collection are, by their very nature, somewhat taboo in Indian society. But they exist. And I would like to think that there is a growing awareness and openness in India today that will allow some thought, some dialogue about the stories because we all will have to confront this either within our own families or in our communities at some point in our lives.

Having said this, I did not put Convent together for the controversy; I rarely analyse my fiction thus before I write, or indeed after I have finished a story. Consequently, most of the stories in Convent were written from a strong emotion, whether anger, upset, outrage or pain and sorrow at what I had heard/read. This (the emotion) has always been the most basic premise of all of my work.

Once I have the idea for a story, in whatever form, I’m methodical in studying the best voice for it, whose point of view should be predominant, what tense to use, how the story should be told—in other words, the craft is what interests me. Then I write, continuously and steadily, until the story is done. And then I revise, send it out to friends, read their comments, revise again.

When the book is done, I hope (as I think all writers hope) that the emotion still carries through the stories, that it affects my readers as much as it did me, that it causes them to think—this is all I ask from my work.

Do you find that living outside of India has changed your perspective of the country and if so how has this shown up in your writing?

The distance from India has given me the ability to write about India. It’s a personal thing, other displaced Indian writers tell fluid stories about the immigrant experience in the US (or elsewhere), something I still find difficult to do for I live the life and find myself unable to find an adequate perspective for this.

I love my homeland, love the history and living away as I do, use my writing to find my connection to India.

In recent years there seems to have been an explosion of English language writers from India/Pakistan. Is this something new, or is it just that the rest of the world is finally noticing?

It’s new, in that even if writers have been writing stories, it’s only in the past twenty years or so that we are being published internationally on such a large scale. And people are reading, listening to what we have to say about India.

Some of the stories in In The Convent Of Little Flowers deal with the social situation and status of women, and others with the social hierarchy known as caste. Why do you think it necessary to write about these subjects?

Again, I’ve never analysed the stories from this point of view. The social status of women, the prevalence of the caste system, these are inherent in Indian society, changing slowly with the times. Most of the stories in Convent deal with the ordinary people facing somewhat extraordinary conditions in their lives and learning how to deal with them—I would say this could happen anywhere in the world. I set my stories in India, and having done so, to provide a complete and full picture, these are issues I must address in the story-line. My intention though, first and foremost, is to be a storyteller.
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While there were some genuinely shocking stories in Convent, the ones I found most moving were the ones showing people overcoming the conditioning that has kept them trapped - "The Most Unwanted" for instance. What do you hope that your readers take away with them from those stories as compared to the other ones?

We’ve all heard these stories before, and I’ll address “The Most Unwanted” specifically where a grandfather struggles to come to terms with a grandson his unmarried daughter brings into his home, and all the impact it has had so far on his life. I thought deeply about Nathan, the grandfather, about where his prejudices came from and how he shatters them by the end of the story because the child puts his head on his lap to sleep.

If I were to continue “The Most Unwanted” beyond that point, the end of the story, then Nathan would never again in his life doubt his decision to accept his grandson. He would defend both the child and his daughter ferociously and in doing so, will force the people around him to accept his decision.

We’ve heard these stories, and assume that they always happen to other people, so the question then for me was how someone would react when it happened to them and I think it depends so much on the specific situations and histories of the protagonists.

If there’s anything I’ve hoped for in this collection (apart from wanting to keep its emotion as close to the source after all the revisions and edits), it is that people will think about my characters, their circumstances, what they are battling and how they win or lose.

Your previous books have been historical epics, set anywhere form Mogul times to the last days of colonial rule, and this collection was set in modern India, have you given any thought to where you want to travel to next?

I just completed my fourth novel, Shadow Princess, which takes me back to the Mughal India of my first two and picks up the story-line after the end of The Feast of Roses. I’ve always wanted to write this novel, and so this story was definitely next in line for me—though I’m not done yet, still working on revising and editing this novel which has a tentative publication date for end of 2009.

I have a vague idea for my next book right now, though it’s still too early to take my head out of Shadow and research this more thoroughly—I expect to be doing this over the coming year.

I just wanted to thank Indu Sundaresan again for taking part in this interview and encourage you once again to at least pick up her collection of short stories, if not one of her novels. In The Convent Of Little Flowers was my introduction to her work, and it has certainly whetted my appetite for more of her work.

December 30, 2008

Village Rescues Starving Horses From Mountainside

The newspapers have been awfully depressing recently, filled with forecasts of economic disaster, reports of epidemics (cholera in Zimbabwe and ebola in the Congo), and casualty statistics from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. With millions of people going hungry world wide on top of that, it's sometimes hard not to listen for the echo of hoof-beats heralding the arrival of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse. Once in a while however, you catch the a glimpse of light in the dark that helps keep despair at bay.

The village of McBride, on the border between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), hasn't had much to celebrate this last little while. Up in the mountainous interior of BC they depend on the forestry industry for survival, and they've suffered with the downturns its experienced in recent years. Mill closings and job losses have left them in rough shape, and I'm sure a lot of the town folk are struggling to make ends meet and were wondering what kind of Christmas they'd be having this year. Whatever they had been thinking, I don't think any of them quite imagined the way Christmas would turn out this year, but I doubt any of them will be forgetting it too soon either.

A week before Christmas Logan Jeck went up Mount Renshaw in northeastern B.C. to retrieve a couple of snowmobiles some tourists had abandoned and what he discovered was enough to break your heart. Two horses, believed to have been there since September, were clinging to life, and the mountainside, in a tiny snowed in space. Jeck's family owns horses, and the next day his father sent his sister Toni back up the mountain with a bale of hay, a .44 magnum and instructions to put them down if they were in too much distress or feed them if they looked like they had a chance at survival. She fed them.
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Then the people of McBride got down to the business of trying to figure out how to get two half dead horses down off the mountain. The first order of business was to ensure that they were strong enough to make the journey. When the animals were first discovered they had lost a third to half their body weight, one of them was covered in sores and missing patches of hair, and urine had encrusted what remained of their tails. The BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) sent a vet in to check the animals out a few days after they were found. On a scale where zero is death and six is ideal, their health was rated a two.

When word began to spread through the Robson Valley where McBride is located, volunteers and donations started to pour in. Blankets and hay were hauled up to feed the two horses and keep them warm, and snow was melted over open fires to provide water. Money to cover the costs of fuel and anything else required was coming in from as far away as Vancouver on the West Coast and Edmonton in central Alberta. However it was still going to be up to the people of McBride to bring the two lost souls safely home.

They considered various options; hoist them out with a helicopter, pull them out on sleds, or even seeing if they could put them on horse snowshoes so they could walk out. Horses, like deer, can't walk on powder snow, their hoofs just break through the crust. With the snow on the mountain piled in drifts higher than most people, there was no way they could walk out in the current conditions even with help. Not only would they quickly flounder, the chances of them breaking a leg while trying to plough through the snow in their weakened condition would be incredibly high. What it came down was being digging a corridor through the snow, with shovels, up the mountain down which the horses could be led safely.
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For a week the people of McBride BC shovelled and dug a kilometre long passageway up the side of Mount Renshaw. Braving temperatures as low as -40C they cut an avenue through drifts that towered over their heads. On Tuesday December 23rd the two horses and their rescuers walked seven hours down to safety. Sundance and Belle have been placed in foster care by the SPCA, and are expected to make a full recovery. When you think of the conditions that people worked under, there were more than a few cases of frost bite reported among those doing the shovelling, and everything else that the townspeople have to worry about, it's hard not to agree with special constable Jamie Wiltse's, of the B.C. SPCA, assessment of them as heroes.

"They've been struggling lately," he said, "but they weren't thinking of themselves when they were digging out those horses. It just makes me choke up. It's a beautiful story, it was totally selfless." Yet to hear the people of McBride talk you wouldn't think they had done anything out of the ordinary. "They didn't deserve to be left up there with no chance of getting out" said horse trainer Birgit Stutz, one of those who took care of the pair on the mountain side while the escape route was being dug. "I wanted them out and that's all I thought about, and that's all that kept me going."
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Ownership of the horses has been traced to a lawyer in Edmonton who says that the horses were carrying supplies for some hikers on the mountain in September when he got separated from them. He claims to have returned three times to try and retrieve the animals, getting stuck in the snow twice before he even located them, and then was unable to get them out of the snow. Constable Wiltse is investigating whether or not charges can be laid against the lawyer under provincial animal-cruelty laws. He says the owner had a duty to at least alert the authorities as to the animals' plight. Instead he left them on the side of a mountain and winter setting in with little or no chance of survival.

Thankfully the people of McBride British Columbia weren't going to let that happen if they could help it, and they turned what could have been a tragedy into a story of hope and compassion. A Mrs. Stulz said when commenting on the fact that she hadn't been able to buy presents or a tree this year because she'd been up the mountain,"This is the best Christmas ever, you realize these are the most important things in life - to help something that needs help".

When you read about a story like this, and you hear someone saying that, especially someone who has just done what Mrs. Stulz and her neighbours have done, you feel a little better about the world. They might not have been able to stop people from killing each other in the Middle East, or catching disease in Africa, but they did remind us what it means to care more about somebody else than yourself. If that's not a message of hope I don't know what is.

December 11, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Leader For The Federal Liberal Party

It's been an exciting couple of weeks in Canadian politics, and it doesn't look like the action is going to slow down any time soon. When Conservative party leader, Prime Minister Steven Harper received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to postpone parliament until January 26th/09 in order to avoid facing a vote of non-confidence in the House Of Parliament, it appeared he might have dodged a bullet. His popularity had risen in the polls and the Liberal Party, leaders of a proposed coalition government poised to replace him after the non-confidence vote, were starting to turn on themselves over who should lead their party when the house reconvened.

Before the events of the last two weeks or so went down the Liberal party were just beginning the process of electing a new leader to replace Stephane Dion who had led them to their worst election result in twenty years. Of the three men who had announced their intention to seek the position, two, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff were considered the front runners, with Igantieff having a slight edge due to his popularity among the Liberal Members of Parliament (MP). Still, in a leadership convention anything can happen and Rae was planning an extensive cross country tour in the hopes of convincing those selected as delegates to the convention that he was the man for the job.

However with the very real possibility of the government still going down to defeat when the House reconvenes, Dion was being a considered a liability by even members of his own party in the event of the coalition being called upon to form a government or, even worse, an election were to be called. One of the reasons that Stephen Harper felt fairly secure in postponing parliament was for that reason. He figured by the time the house re-convened the Liberals would be too busy with picking a new leader to risk defeating him in an election with a lame duck leader.
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Well the Liberals have called his bluff, and two very intelligent and proud men have put aside their own political ambitions in order to make the Liberals as unified and strong as possible no matter what happens at the end of January 2009. Stephane Dion offered to step down immediately, and Bob Rae has stepped aside to allow Michael Ignatieff to become leader of the party. The party had been discussing ways of holding a speeded up leadership convention, either by having a new leader elected by the Liberal caucus or expanding the vote to include riding association heads (a riding is the equivalent of an electoral district and each riding represents a seat in the House Of Commons) and all candidates from the last election to ensure that all ridings had a say in the matter.

While they will still be going through with both votes, it will now simply be a formality as there is only the one candidate, Michael Ignatieff. This does raise the question as to what happens now? When the Liberal party was rounding up caucus members to sign the coalition agreement the last to sign was Ignatieff, in fact he signed it three hours after the deadline for signing had passed. It has also been said that if the coalition had taken office earlier this month, he would not have accepted a cabinet post in the new government. Now whether or not that's because he was preparing to be the new leader as of May 2009 and wanted to distance himself from anything to do with Stephane Dion, or he didn't believe in the idea of a coalition, isn't known. What is known is one of his staffers has been quoted as saying "coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition" It appears that he is more than willing to use the threat of the coalition to keep Steven Harper in check, but not about to jump the gun and vote Harper's government down just for the sake of voting against him.

The one hitch in that plan is that he did sign the coalition agreement and backing out at this late date unilaterally would quickly sour his relationships with the other opposition parties unless he can convince them it's in all of their best interests. Both Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) the other member of the coalition, and Gilles Ducette, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, who have promised to support the coalition in parliament for eighteen months by not voting against them on bills that would cause them to lose power, have publicly said that they believe the coalition still stands and are still planning for that eventuality.

(As opposed to the lie that Steven Harper and his Conservative Party have been spouting, the Bloc Quebecois would not be part of the coalition government and would not be given any cabinet posts in that government. Anyway, he was willing to do a deal with them two years ago when he was in opposition to try and form a government so he should be careful about who he accuses of what. In fact he pissed off Quebecer's so much with his anti-Quebec comments over the last couple of weeks that he is considered responsible for the improved showing of the Parti Quebecois (provincial separatist party) in the Quebec provincial election this past Monday, December 8th/08)

I have a feeling that unless the Conservative Party do something incredibly stupid, like still try to pass the same financial plan that caused this mess in the first place, or not offer a solid package of financial incentives to help stimulate the economy in whatever plan they do propose, they will probably ride this storm out. Michael Ignatieff is an unknown quality for Canadians, and he's wise enough to know that he would be risking his political career by becoming Prime Minister as the head of the coalition unless he can offer an iron clad case to Canadians that the Conservatives and Stephen Harper are unfit to rule. Instead I think he will take this opportunity to establish himself and bash the crap out of Harper and his party until the summer recess, and then next fall pull the plug on Steven Harper and run head to head with him for the Prime Minister's office.

Of course considering the volatile political climate we find ourselves in right now, everything could change again overnight. There have been rumbles of discontent from the rank and file of the Conservative Party. Harper has had two elections now with which to attempt to win a majority and even with a weakened Liberal party encumbered with a leader nobody really liked, he was still unable to deliver a majority government this time. The Liberals may not be the only party who change their leadership between now and next year.

November 26, 2008

Music CD & Bonus DVD Review: Buffy Sainte-Marie Running For The Drum

For all that Canadians claim moral superiority over Americans, our history when it comes to dealing with issues of race is no better than anybody else's. We have been the master of discreet and covert discrimination from almost the moment we became a country in 1867. Just look at the nearly successful campaign of cultural genocide that we carried out against Native Canadians with the Residential School system. Children were stolen away from their parents, some transported thousands of miles from home, in order to make them useful citizens.This included stripping them of their identities by changing their names, forbidding them to speak anything but English (or French if they were in Quebec), and being taught that their parent's beliefs were superstitions that was going to send them all to hell.

In spite of their best efforts, the combined efforts of the government and the Anglican and Catholic Churches weren't quite successful. Enough people held on to their nation's culture and preserved it for the lost generations. Lost because not only didn't they fit into the white world, they didn't fit into the world of their parents either. Unlike others her age Buffy Sainte-Marie avoided Residential school, but was "adapted" by a predominantly white family (her adopted mother was part Mik'maq) in New England, miles away from her family in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her mother did tell her that there was a world of difference between what she saw in the movies and the reality of being Native American, but she could find out about that stuff when she was an adult if she wanted.

As anyone who is familiar with Buffy Sainte-Marie's music, activism, or art knows she most definitely found out the truth about the circumstances of Native Americans in contemporary society. Her latest release, Running For The Drum, not only once again confirms her talents as singer and songwriter, but reaffirms her commitment to the culture of her people. However, as the DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, included as a bonus, shows she's not interested in merely preserving the culture like a museum piece, but keeping it a living breathing entity that isn't afraid to be part of the modern world.
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One doesn't need to look any further than the music on Running For The Drum for examples of that as she draws just as heavily upon modern musical influences as traditional native ones when writing her material. In A Multimedia Life she says that her musical influences included everything from R&B, early rock and roll, Miles Davis, to the French singer Edith Piaf, and you can hear traces of just about all of them, on the new disc. Right from the first cut you know this isn't going to be the type of "Native" music they sell in New Age emporiums. There's nothing ethereal about the strident challenge of the lyrics, the dance club beat that pulses underneath it, and the sound effects that surround "No No Keshagesh".

While I've become used to Buffy Sainte-Marie's use of technology in her material, "No No Keshagesh" (Greedy Guts) still took me by surprise with its sound and the amount of technology she used on it. Yet once I adjusted to what she was doing I could hear how this music was working to make the lyrics attacking how businesses have "Got Mother Nature on a luncheon plate/The carve her up and call it real estate" that much more powerful. This isn't some whining, tree hugger song about being nice to the flowers, this a call to arms to fight back: "Mister Greed I think your time has come/I'm gonna/Sing it and pray it and/live it and say it singing/No No Keshagesh you can't do it nor more."

I watched the documentary before I listened to the CD which is where I found out about her being taken from her family as a child and not knowing whether she was born in 1940, 41, or 42. In 1964, as her career was starting to take off, she made a trip up to the Wikwemikong pow-wow on Manitoulin Island (largest fresh water island in the world) in Northern Ontario, and began the process of trying to find her family. Unfortunately all of the records pertaining to her adoption had been destroyed, so finding out who her birth parents were was impossible. However she was readopted by a Native family from her home reserve who she had met at the pow-wow. Her new grandfather was the son of one of signatories to Treaty 4, the treaty in which the Cree Indians of Western Canada recognized Queen Victoria as their ruler, and he was her link in the chain that reconnected her to being a member oft Cree nation.
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The documentary does a really good job of telling Sainte-Marie's story from her earliest days as a folk singer in Greenwich Village in New York City, combining archival footage of some of her earliest performances with present day interviews with people like Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, and other contemporaries from the time. We find out that her career in the States came to an abrupt halt in the late sixties when she was blacklisted by the Johnson administration for her activism in both the anti-war movement and Native rights.

By the end of the sixties she was making her primary focus Native rights, using every public appearance she made to try and educate people on the reality of being Native in the twentieth century. As a result of this her air time became more and more limited as people like The Tonight Show started applying conditions to her appearances - no talking about civil rights and only singing certain songs - and she would say, thanks, but no thanks. This didn't stop her from winning an Oscar for co-writing "Up Where We Belong" from the movie An Officer And A Gentleman.

The documentary takes us up into the present day and she talks about the things that motivate her now. In the early eighties she started to experiment with digital art and continues to create in a variety of styles and mediums to this day. Her other major focus has been on creating educational programming for Native and non-native children using the Internet. The Cradleboard Teaching Project is a multi media interactive curriculum for students from grade three to twelve while the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education is dedicated to helping Native American students receive an education and also educating people of all backgrounds about Native American culture.

Needless to say with all this going on her music output isn't quite as prolific as it used to be, but that doesn't mean the quality of her work has suffered any either as the material on Running For The Drum makes perfectly clear. Whether she's doing a tribute to the early music of Elvis Presley on the rockabilly like "Blue Sunday", or a hauntingly beautiful song like "Easy Like The Snow Falls Down" which she dedicates to hospice caregivers who help families care for loved ones who are dying, her music remains as potent as it was when she wrote "Universal Soldier".

She pretty much covers all her musical influences on this disc, including a New Orleans blues tune, "I Bet My Heart On You" that features a piano duet with her and Taj Mahal. Yet, at least in my opinion, it's when she taps into her own heritage for inspiration that her material begins to transcend the boundaries of ordinary pop music. Listen to a piece like the previously mentioned "No No Keshagesh" or "Working For The Government" where she has sampled pow-wow drums and sings in the high falsetto of the pow-wow singer and, if you let it, her voice will lift you out of yourself, and send you travelling in ways you wouldn't think possible with popular music.

More then forty years after starting her career as a professional musician Buffy Sainte-Marie is still continuing to look for new ways to express herself and isn't afraid of taking chances with her music. Running For The Drum is a great example of just how powerful and diverse a musician she is. The DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, included in the package as a wonderful bonus shows you the steps she's taken to get to where she is today. Great music, a fascinating artist, and a well told story - what more could you ask for from a two disc CD/DVD set.

November 6, 2008

Interview: John Trudell: Activist, Poet, Musician - An Umined Mind


Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process
The intelligence of each arriving human generation
Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs
Of the industrial society each human generation arrive in
The human beings are individually and collectively mined... John Trudell; "Somewhere Inside My Head"; Lines From A Mined Mind Fulcrum Press 2008.

Huh? That was my reaction when I first read those lines from the introduction to the collected writings of John Trudell, Lines From A Mined Mind. What is this crazy on about with his "Mined Mind" shit. But you know the longer I stared at it, and the further I read on into his introduction and then his poetry, it actually began to make sense - at least around the edges.

You see I may not ever really fully understand what it means to be a Mined Mind, because my mind has been so successfully mined already. I like to think of myself as being an outsider, separate from the mainstream of society, if only because of my career choices in the past - the arts - and the fact that my political and religious affiliations tend to be along the lines of "none of the above". However, simply the fact that I'm willing to make those choices at all, keeps me playing the game and being sucked into the maelstrom of our society. My mind has been mined because I believe that by doing what I do it makes me different, maybe even superior, to a great many people out there. Yet just the fact that I think that way, comparing myself to everybody else, means that I'm still just as much a part of it as everybody else because its the yardstick I measure myself against.
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Okay so I'm not doing anything to help you either understand what the hell it was he was talking about or giving you any insights to just who this guy is - which is after all the point of this exercise. It's supposed to be an interview with John Trudell - writer, lyricist, and former political activist - yet I'm babbling on about belonging or not belonging to society. Well you see people like John - they don't have a choice - when you're own government declares war on you for simply asking to be treated the way everybody else is treated, you get the hint real fast that your presence is not appreciated.

Now that's bound to change the way you look at things, and get you thinking outside the lines that make up the carefully constructed boxes that were supposed to think inside of. Talking to John made me realize just how big the gulf is between somebody whose really free, and what I think of as being free. I don't know if that's going to come across in what you're about to read - it pales in comparison to what I remember our conversation sounding like - but I hope by the end you come away with a clearer picture of John and a better understanding of where he's at, and the mining process that's being carried out on your mind on a daily basis.

Can we start off with some of the typical biographical details - where were you born and all that.

I was born in 1946 near Omaha Nebraska and split my childhood half and half between living in town with my parents and living on the Santee Sioux Reservation just outside of Omaha with my grandparents. I dropped out of high-school because it wasn't working for me, and at seventeen I joined the navy. I did my four year hitch, even though it wasn't really right for me, and got out in 1967. I did a couple of years of collage after that, but that didn't work out because of some political shit, and I was denied something that I should have got credit for.

This might be a stupid question, I don't know, but how would your experiences as a child have been different than your so-called typical kid growing up in the suburbs?

Well, like I said I travelled back and forth between the two worlds, living half my time on the reservation and half my time off it, and what I saw as the major difference between the two worlds was that while everyone on the reservation was poor, there was a real community, one that had common roots and a culture that tied it together. Off the reservation, in the non-native world it was more about competition - more emphasis on material stuff and class distinctions.

You know back in those days the emphasis was on finishing high school and getting a good job, no talk of university or collage for us, right, but I never felt like I was fitting out there - that's why I tired the military, and I don't regret that either, but it was all part of looking for a place where I fit. It was only on the reservation where I felt that sense of belonging - that's where my cultural/social peer group was.

I was just curious, up in Canada we had the Residential School system and as late as the 1970's kids were still being taken away from their families - wasn't there the equivalent in the States

Yeah, the boarding schools, but they weren't happening everywhere, and my dad kept me out of them - he also protected me from religion, so I was able to avoid a lot of the stuff I know some other people had to put up with.

What galvanized you to become politically active?

Well like I said I didn't feel like I fit anywhere in the non-native world. You know - no matter what you did, a job, school, whatever, you would have to be subservient to authority if you want to get ahead, and I just wasn't into playing that game. So when I went to Alcatraz (The All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans from 1969 -1971) it was like getting back to my community - the place where I fit best.

You were part of the All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 69-71 and them Chairman of AIM from 73 - 79. Those were some volatile years for the politically active Indian - Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Shootout, Anna Mae Asquash. Reading about it - it appears to have been a time of great hope and excitement mixed with fear and confusion. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on those years and are you able to give your assessment of it in general?

Our grievances were just, but the American government declared war on us and fought us for all they were worth. There were great highs and great lows, but we were motivated by good intentions. I know some tribes are better off now because of what we did, but I think the most important thing that came out of it was that our energy and our spirit was rekindled. There was a revitalization of who we were as a people.

Our confusions were those of any human searching for identity, of any human being searching for a way of being. Now when I look back on it I see it as part of my life experience where I might not have realized the lesson I was learning at the time, but at some point I got it.

From reading biographies about you there's the appearance that you became a poet and song writer over night because that's when you first started doing it professionally. Prior to the early eighties when you started recording, had you ever given any thought to music or poetry being part of you life

Nope - never. It wasn't anything I had planned on doing. I started writing in 1979, although I'd always been influenced by music, it wasn't with the intent of doing music. It's just that back in 1978 I knew things were going to change - activism had served its purpose and I could see it had run its course. Then the fire, when Tina, her mom, and the kids died (In 1979 just after John Trudell led a protest against FBI headquarters a mysterious fire burnt down his home killing his wife, her mother, and their children) that was the final severing point for me - the world would never be the same after that. I was falling through realities and writing became something for me to hang onto.

How did you get started with music - you released your first album Tribal Voice in 1983 on your own label - how did that come about, and what kind of music was it?

I had met Jackson Browne around this time, and was just hanging out with him. Now that I was spending time in recording studios and hanging out with musicians I began wondering what these lines I'd been writing would sound like set to music - you see I don't think of myself as a poet or a song writer - I write lines. I decided that I wanted to use the old music - the drum and the singers and set the lines to what I knew best then. Jackson produced and we made Tribal Voice.

It was after that that I met the Kiowa guitar player Jesse Ed Davis - actually I don't think of him as a Kiowa guitar player, just one hell of a great guitar player. Anyway Jesse introduced me to electric music. He wrote music for my lines and we put out our first album in 1986 AKA Graffiti Man. I was still doing the spoken word thing then and Jesse took me out on the road with a band and got me playing in clubs so I could learn what the heck it was like to be a musician, 'cause I didn't know anything about doing that sort of thing. We did that for three years until Eddie died.

I interviewed Martha Redbone a while back, and she said that as a native pop musician one of the hardest things she faced was overcoming people's expectations of what she as a Native woman should be doing musically. What's been your experience with this like?

I just blow it off - no insult to anybody or anything but I can't be anything other than what I am. If people have expectations they just have to deal with them... I'm me and that's who I represent - I can't claim to represent all natives or anything like that, the only ones I might represent are the ones who agree with what I'm saying.

I know, there's this whole Fascism of Romanticism thing going on - people have created an image they want natives to fit into - some sort of fantasy ideal that makes us easy for them to say - that's what they are, but you know that's not reality. I happen to be native and male, but I am who I am and that's how I participate in reality - as a human being - rather than as a race or a sex.

When I reviewed Lines From A Mined Mind I tried to explain what you meant by a "Mined Mind" but I'm not sure how clear I was on it - can you take me through it?

Well you read the introduction right (Me: Yeah but you know I'm still not sure whether I got what you were after) Okay they've got us believing that believing is thinking, but the reality is we're not really thinking cause believing is accepting without thinking about it. Because we're not thinking we end up focusing on our fears, doubts and insecurities. The "being" part of human is being mined and that allows us to be programmed by the beliefs they tell us is thinking.

If we ever want to use the power of creative thinking we must become focused on the conscious power of thought. It's also got to be an awareness that's beyond just the self - it's a recognition of the power of intelligence in of itself without anything tied to it. It's all about energy, because thought is energy, and when you take energy away from humans we're flat - we're mined out.


You write about a variety of topics in your poetry - what does it take for a topic to inspire you?

I don't really think in terms of being inspired you know, sometimes the lines just appear, sometimes I have to go hunting for them. I'm not really that sure what sets the line in motion, sometimes I'm inspired by desperation when I start (laughs)

Your work stands on its own as poetry, yet you perform a good deal of the verse collected in Mined Mind as songs. What are you looking for the music to do with your lyrics?

As an art form music has its own value, but like I said I'm not a poet or a song writer - I write lines - I guess you could call me a liner (laughs). What's great is that they work with music. The way we work as a band is that I write the lines first and then the guys in the band take them and we find the right texture to go with them. That way the music becomes an extension of the lines.

I've always really liked spoken word 'cause we can all talk and we are all used to being talked too. (laughs) There's something really direct about it though - I'm not really sure how it works, most of what I do is based on hunches, I'm just glad when it does work.

What do you hope that listeners, or readers take away from your work?

I don't believe in hope - hope is a sedative - it's something you do instead of doing something - you sit around and "hope" things will get better. You know when Pandora was given her box of evils by the Gods and told not to open it, and she did anyway letting loose all the evils on the world, the last of the things that was in that box was hope!

Okay let me re phrase that - what do you want people to take away from your work?

Hah, whatever they can get out of it - I want it to make sense to them you know - Hell I'm crazy so it's always a relief when people get a little something from it you know? (laughs)

We wrapped it up after that, mainly because my head was spinning with the various stuff that we had talked about. Talking to person who genuinely doesn't give a fuck, who is really free, can be a very confusing thing for the rest of us who are still hung up on the various things that are built into the system that hold us back and keep us in check. I'm sure there's lots of you out there who are going to dismiss what he says as bullshit, and I guess that's your right to do so. However I hope that some of you will be able to get an inkling of what's going on in a genuinely un-mined mind. Don't worry about being confused - in fact take it as a good sign - when things stop making sense it's the first sign that you're starting to think clearly.

October 3, 2008

Book Review: Little Brother By Cory Doctorow

Back in the dark ages of technology, the early 1990s, a friend tried to convince me of the necessity of learning about technology. As he was (and remains to this day) the smartest person I know I didn't dismiss his argument that we needed to understand technology in order to know what the government could do with it to keep tabs on us as complete paranoia. Hell if I had graduated from University it would have been in 1984, so the idea of Big Brother looking over our shoulder wasn't something I ever took lightly.

Still, at the time, I really didn't understand what he was so worried about, not realizing just what technology could do and its potential for surveillance work. Sixteen years later I'm wishing I took him a little more seriously as the world has gradually given itself over to technology, and more and more opportunities exist for monitoring our every move. Information chips on credit cards, GPS systems in cars that track your movements, and CCS Cameras on every corner equipped with gait and face recognition software to pick out individuals in a crowd are only the tip of the iceberg, as its the stuff I know about. It's the stuff I don't know about that worries me now.

In the past decade science fiction writers have had a field day with technology and its applications for surveillance and control. Yet, perhaps because they are so obviously science fiction, or the stories I've read just a little too outlandish, it's been easy to disassociate what they have written from the world we live in and dismiss them as fantasy. That is until I downloaded a copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother from the free download page at his Craphound web site
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Cory Doctorow is a Canadian science fiction writer and, for lack of a better description, copyright and free technology activist. He's one of the co-editors for Boing, Boing, has worked extensively with groups around the world at freeing up copyright restrictions and creating open source technology, and founded the open source company, OpenCola. It's his belief that by making his work available as downloads it creates the potential for more, not less sales, so all his books are available as free downloads under the Creative Commons Licence. (If you're interested in reading up on this sort of thing in detail Cory has gathered together a collection of essays he's written about it in Content that can be downloaded from his site)

In Little Brother we are introduced to Marcus Yallow, a seventeen year old high school student living in San Francisco. In Marcus' San Francisco the schools have introduced various means of monitoring their students, including handing out free laptops for their school work that monitors their on line behaviour, surveillance systems that use cameras and gait recognition software to monitor their whereabouts, and library books with chips that can be used as homing beacons. Marcus and his friends are able to stay two steps ahead of the system and have figured out work-arounds and hacks for anything the school board can throw at them.

Marcus is pretty much your typical, self-assured, slightly cocky - bordering on arrogant teenager, believing that he can handle anything the grown-up world can throw at him. A terrorist attack that blows up the Bay bridge between San Francisco and Oakland changes all that and his world forever. Caught out in the open when the bomb happens he and three friends at first try to head for shelters like everyone else. Deciding they're better off out in the open, they head out to the street where they try and flag down a cop after discovering one friend has been injured. Unfortunately the first vehicle to stop for them is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who immediately arrest all four of them for being somewhere they're not supposed to be.

Like any other American Marcus assumes he has rights, and demands to see a lawyer and refuses to co-operate with any of their requests for information without one. Which is when he finds out that he doesn't have any rights and the DHS are perfectly prepared to keep him in jail without telling anyone where he is forever if he doesn't co-operate. One night in a jail cell having to piss in his pants because he is handcuffed convinces him that they are serious and he caves in. He and two of his friends are released after four days, but told if they ever tell what happened to them they will disappear forever and that the DHS are watching them. Their injured friend isn't released and nobody is willing to tell them anything about him.

Marcus quickly discovers the whole world has changed and that DHS have instituted monitoring on everything. Once he recovers from his shock at being imprisoned, he makes the decision to fight back. Using his knowledge of technology he believes he'll be able to stay under Homeland Security's radar and organize resistance against them. Using various cracks, hacks, and loopholes in the Internet, and through the distribution of copies of an open source operating system, he establishes an alternative network for those wishing to stay anonymous and untraceable. (All the technology and tricks described in the book exist and are available for anyone to use if they are willing to learn how. In an afterward to the book Doctorow provides articles written by some of the people who developed them.)

At first he thinks he's accomplishing something, and in some ways it's just another computer game to him, but gradually the cat and mouse game he's playing with DHS starts to get dangerous. Not only do his opponents have access to the same technology that he does, and people working for them just as smart if not smarter than him, they have blackmailed teenagers into working for them as undercover spies who are closer to Marcus than he knows. Yet in spite of his constant and real fear of "disappearing" Marcus refuses to run away or cave in. Along the way he learns valuable lessons in what it means to take responsibility for your actions, and the responsibility of leadership. For whether he wants it or not, his online personality becomes a rallying figure for all the people resisting DHS, and people are putting themselves at risk because of his ideas.

Like I said earlier their have been lots of books written about this sort of thing recently, but Little Brother works where they haven't for a couple of reasons. The reality that Doctorow depicts is highly plausible, we only have to read unbiased news reports to verify it. Innocent people have been sent to foreign countries to be tortured, people are locked away in nameless prisons without trial and without being told why they have been arrested, and the atmosphere of fear and mistrust manufactured by governments in order to justify suspending civil liberties is a reality.

Into this very believable world he has dropped some very real people whose behaviour is completely plausible. Marcus and his friends, and the other young people we meet, could very well be any group of young people today. They are tech savvy in a way that people of my generation will never be as they have grown up taking it for granted and accepting it as a part of life, while to us it's still something alien that has to be learned and not to be completely trusted. While they understand some of the risks involved with chat rooms and such (pervs looking to score with young kids etc.) they have a hard time separating their online world and reality. Like Marcus they don't understand the real consequences of what will happen to them if they're caught as that's beyond the scope of their experience. To them it's just one more on line role playing game, but brought to life.

For those of you who have trouble getting your heads around the idea that a bunch of teenagers can be motivated enough to take a stand on issues like civil liberties, Doctorow has the brains to work recent history into the text to establish precedents. It was only as recently as the 1960's when young people were involved with voter registration drives in the South as part of the Civil Rights campaign, or protesting the war in Vietnam. Give people enough motivation and direction and they can be galvanized to action, and Doctorow provides his characters with both making their behaviour believable and realistic.

Little Brother is a well written and intelligent story that will keep you on the edge of your seat no matter what your age. It not only provides its readers with an overview of the technology that's being employed to monitor your behaviour and the means to counteract it, but it does so within a moral and legal framework that can't be argued with. Young and old, this book will help you see the world around you in a new light, and will open your eyes to the reality of our not so brave new world.

October 1, 2008

Canadian Politics: We're Having An Election Too (Not So Anybody's Noticed)

Greetings from north of the 49th parallel. As you down there in America are looking more and more like you are about to make a drastic change in your national political landscape in the next presidential election by switching from the arch-conservative to the liberal, we here in the land of igloos and ice-hockey are poised on our own cusp. On October 14th Canadians will head to the polls to choose our next Prime Minister, and there is a chance that we could be electing our first ever really conservative government.

In the past a party that called itself the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada has formed governments, and while they might have been what some people in Canada would have considered fiscally conservative, they have always been far more liberal socially than even the most liberal of Democrats in the United States. It was a Progressive Conservative Prime Minister in the 1960's who instituted our system of universal medicare after all, something that very few politicians of any stripe in the States dare to even talk about let alone implement.

The party calling itself the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Steven Harper won the most seats in our House of Parliament in our last election, but failed to win enough to have the outright majority required to rule uncontested and do whatever they wanted. What they want to do is remake Canada in the image of George Bush's America - somewhere safe for God fearing, white, heterosexual Christians who want to profit at the expense of others. In the two years they've had a minority government they have managed to scrap Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Accord, rescind The Kelowna Accord (legislation that the previous government, the provinces and native leaders had negotiated that would have given native Canadians a chance to dig out from under years of poverty), cut 50 million dollars in funding to the arts, divert funding from HIV/AIDS prevention programs, extend and expand Canada's military mission in Afghanistan against the wishes of the majority of Canadians, increase military spending, and cut funds to social programs for women and children.

Of course there are some things they have failed to do; rescinding the legalization of same sex marriages, instituting legislation that would have given people the right to discriminate against others on the basis of sexuality, and closing North America's only safe injection facility, Insite. In each case it wasn't any of the opposition parties in the House of Commons who prevented them from enacting these pieces of legislation, but the courts upholding the constitution and Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This has led to the familiar conservative call to reform the courts on the grounds they are interfering in the government's ability to rule. While this is a seductive argument, because it has some basis in truth, it is up to the courts to ensure that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is respected and the Constitution is upheld. If any government complains because they aren't allowed to contravene their country's constitution and do what they want, shouldn't one wonder about them instead of wondering about the courts? I would think that we should be grateful that the politicians have someone, or somebody, holding them accountable.

For those of you not familiar with Canada's form of democracy, we are what's called a Constitutional Monarchy, with the Queen of England being our titular head of state represented in Canada by a Governor-General. This is a figure head position with no real power, and the real authority lies in the hands of whoever is Prime Minister. As we have a parliamentary system of government our Prime Minister is the leader of whichever political party elects the most members to sit in parliament during an election.

The country is divided up into electoral districts based on what is supposedly the fairest means of proportional representation possible - but as certain parts of the country have a higher population density than others it doesn't really work out - with each district representing one seat in parliament. If a party wins a clear majority of the seats they are said to have a majority government and can pretty much do as they please for the next four and half to five years when they'll have to call another election.

When no one winds an outright majority, as what happened in the last election, the leader of the party with the most seats in the house forms the government. Under normal circumstances they will try and negotiate a deal with another party with seats that together they form a majority. However after the last election the Liberal party of Canada, who finished second to the Conservatives, were too busy stabbing each other in the back and electing a new leader to risk an election being called, so the Conservatives didn't have to worry about making nice with anyone.

In fact the Conservatives could probably have gone on ruling for quite some time without having to call an election, but they thought they could win a majority government if they called an election now. So claiming that parliament was unworkable, Steven Harper asked the Governor General's permission to dissolve the current parliament and call an election. As I said before, the Governor General is only a figure head and no matter what he or she might think they have to go along with the Prime Minister, so he was allowed to call an election.

It's been a perfect campaign for the Conservatives - boring and tedious. They haven't promised anything, haven't even said what their plans are if elected. Oh they make vague comments like, we're the best party for the economy, or Canada has become more conservative in the last while and the newspapers report them as gospel. Nobody is calling on them to explain how they plan on being the best party for the economy or even asking why anybody should vote for them, and the most recent polls still show them flirting with a majority government.

The good news, for those in opposition, is that the polls are by no means anywhere as near as conclusive as they were earlier in the campaign. Where it once looked like they were a pretty sure bet to form a majority, the other parties are making enough inroads into Conservative support that the chances of that happening are decreasing. Wednesday night, October 1st/08, the leaders of the four national parties, Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic Party, and The Green Party, will face off in a debate over the issues that will go a long way in deciding whether or not Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada form a majority or have to make do with another minority government.

If the other four leaders are able to make the country realize that Steven Harper isn't actually saying anything and wake everybody up enough to notice that he could be on the verge of winning a majority government, there's a good chance it will be enough to prevent it from happening. On the other hand if nobody is able to do anything to wake people up, to make them pay attention to what's going on, to care enough to vote, Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada could very well have a majority government on October 15th.

It would be supremely ironic if on the eve of an historic breakthrough for liberalism in the United States, the election of a black president, Canada, historically the far more liberal country, elects its most conservative government ever.

September 7, 2008

Interview: Willie Nile - The Troubadour Of New York City

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to review the new DVD by Willie Nile. Live From The Streets Of New York. It had been years since I'd really listened to any of Willie's music, and the DVD brought back in a rush all the reasons that I'd listened to him years ago. Honest, passionate, and intelligent rock and roll without any of the pretensions that seem to have to crept into people's music these days.

Yet he's more than a rock and roller, as he's been bitten by a muse who lets him look at the world with an eye full of mischief and an ear for the absurd. His songs spring from the streets of New York City, but he's not blind to the rest of the world. The music might ring with a New York accent but his songs speak to everyone.

The other week I sent him off some questions through e-mail about him and his career and what you're about to read are his answers reprinted verbatim. I hope reading this interview will inspire you to check out Willie again if like me you lost track of him for a while, or if you've never listened to him, that you take the time to do so now. You won't be disappointed.

You mentioned in the DVD Live From The Streets Of New York that you were originally from Buffalo NY. Can you tell me a little about those early years and what influenced you to pursue a life in music

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family where with older brothers buying rock and roll records and playing music all the time in the house as well as having a lot of classical music played so there was a wide variety of things to be heard by our small ears. We had dozens and dozens of international visitors, exchange students, Buddhist monks, Indian poets and governors, you name it. They came to our house, some for dinner, some for a few days, some for the summer and some for a year. It gave us all a pretty cosmopolitan world view. They all had different languages, customs, clothes, attitudes, etc., yet you could see how people could live together and get beyond the differences. It was interesting to see from such a young age. On top of that my father was a great storyteller. Somewhere along the line I started writing poetry and when I learned to play the guitar I started putting the words into songs.
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What was it about New York City that made you decide that it was the place you needed to be in order to do what you wanted to do?

It was where the beat poets were from. I was into Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat sensibility. New York was also where the record companies were and it was closer than LA or Nashville. I had a bunch of songs I'd written and wanted to make a record. I used to hitchhike down from Buffalo in the summertime and sleep in the park when I was in high school and I found it to be a magical place. I felt free in the city.


You arrived in New York City in the 1970's - it must have been quite intimidating to show up on your own and try to find your way as a musician - did you have any contacts or had you made any arrangements before hand? How did it end up coming together for you?

It was pretty simple for me. I wanted to record my songs and the record companies were in NY. It also felt like Paris in the 1850's and London in Dicken's time. There was a timeless quality to it that I liked. It was definitely intimidating at first but I got over it after a while.


New York by 1977 was a hot bed for new music, with Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, as well as guys like Lou Reed who'd already been around for quite a while - where did you fit in amongst all that?

It was an amazing time. I'd been living in the Village since 1972 and there were a lot of old ghosts from the 60's in the air. There was a pretentiousness in certain quarters that I found ridiculous. One day I was looking in the paper for new places to play I saw an add for CBGB OMFUG. It was on the Bowery and not far from where I lived so I took my guitar and wandered in. At that time it was a Hell's Angels hangout along with a lot of Bowery characters. There was a flop house above it. I asked who to talk to about playing there and was told. "Speak to Hilly." I waited for a half hour and Hilly never came out. While waiting and looking at the jukebox I saw one record on there by a "Hilly Kristal." So I proceeded to pump about five dollars of quarters and played the song over and over until Hilly finally came out of his cave quite annoyed to see who was playing his song so many times. I think he got a kick out of some wise-ass doing something like that so he let me play there. This was when the bar had a jazz pianist as the entertainment and just before Television started playing there. I played in front of a bunch of Hell's Angel's and Bowery Boys. It was great fun. I got to remind him of that story on the last night at CBGB's. I'm glad I got to see him before he died.

As for the scene that developed shortly afterwards, it was incredible. I used to go see Patti Smith and Television all the time, The Ramones, you name it. It was inspiring and original and it rocked. It was a welcome relief from the tedium of the music that was being played around that time. It was original music played from the heart by a bunch of outcasts and Dead End kids. I used to call friends up on the phone at midnight from the back of CBGB's and hold the phone up and say: "Listen to this... you gotta come hear this, come to New York." It felt like The Cavern Club in Liverpool back in the day when The Beatles started happening. They were great days.

You opened for the Who during their 1979 tour of the United States - how did that association come about?

I'd heard through my record label that Pete Townshend was a big fan of my first album. I didn't believe it and thought it was just record company hype but when we played LA on that first tour, The Who's management came to the show and after seeing me play invited me to open for The Who on their cross-country tour in the US. Naturally I said yes. I was a huge fan. It was magical to see them play night after night. I had never played with a band live before that tour so to be playing in front of 20 - 25 thousand raving Who fans night after night was pretty interesting. I had a great time.

I was interested to hear you describe yourself as a troubadour at one point on the DVD, just because that's not a word you hear people describe themselves as very often any more. What do you mean by it in terms of your music and your approach to it?

Someone who travels from town to town singing songs and telling stories would be considered a troubadour in days past. I guess that's close to what I do. I write what moves me, in one way or another. It helps me get a hold on some of the madness that goes on in this world.

One of my favourite songs on the Live From Streets Of New York DVD was "The Day I Saw Bo Diddly In Washington Square". I know you co-wrote that with Frankie Lee, but it, "Back Home", and "Streets Of New York" all struck me as being distinctly Irish influenced. How much if any do you think that heritage influences your writing style?

I love Irish music and my family roots are Irish for the most part so it's not surprising that some Irish influence would get in some of these songs. Irish music has passion, spirit and soul and if there's any of that in my music as well then that's okay by me.

There are a couple of songs on the DVD, "Cell Phones Are Ringing (in the pockets of the dead)" and "Hard Times In America", that are obviously political, but you're more than just a political songwriter. Where do you find your inspiration for material?

I just write down what comes to me from everyday life. Sometimes it's a love song, or a bar band rocker, or a minstrel fairy tale, or a poke at some phony who needs a good sock in the jaw, or a lowdown dirty rock and roll song that can ignite the masses to revolt and take over the planet and make it a better place for people to live in.
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With Cell Phones, I live not too far from the World Trade Center and was in town on 9/11. I watched the towers burn and felt the shock and horror, as did everyone. I was on one of the first flights out of town a few days later on my way to Spain for a tour and was struck by the concern and compassion the Spanish showed night after night with their questions. They really cared about what happened and how people were doing. So, in March of 2004, when the Madrid train bombing happened I immediately checked to see if my Spanish friends were okay. The next day in one of the NY papers one of the headlines read: "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead". Apparently there were some 190 body bags lined up along the tracks and cell phones were going off in the bags. People were looking for their loved ones. It went right through me. It gave me chills and made me angry. That people could do this to one another in this so called 'modern world' really pissed me off. I wanted to fight back in some way. I think we, as a race of people, are capable of much more than this. It's bullshit, all these religious zealots running around praising their 'god' and then killing some innocent people. All sides are guilty of this recklessness. We've got to find a way to get more compassion in this world. So I just started typing away on my computer and wrote the song straight out. It was my way of fighting back. When I sing it live it's surprising to hear so many people singing along with the outro chant "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead" in defiance of all this madness. It's heartening, I must say.

When you write a song, do you have a specific intent in mind before you start, or do you just let the muse take you and then run with it?

Usually I just let the song happen to me. I just go by my instincts on whether to pursue an idea or a phrase or a line of music. If it feels like it could be something I'll just follow that and try not to get in it's way.

What's all this that I read about the 2006 CD Streets of New York being a comeback CD? Had you not put something out for a long time before that?

I think it was 6 years since the last one was out (Beautiful Wreck of the World). I guess I just take too long between albums. I don't see any of it as a 'comeback'. I just take my time and do it when it feels right. I'm just now finishing up a new album for a release in early 09. Can't wait to get it out there.

Earlier I asked you about what it was about New York City that attracted you in the first place, and it's obvious that the city means a lot to you now. Are you able to articulate what it is about New York that makes it so special for you?

There's an electricity to this town that is intriguing to me. It's a cosmopolitan city where the rich and poor and everyone in between wander and roam about amidst canyons of concrete and steel. I've heard that Manhattan is built on a certain kind of granite that is a strong conductor of electricity. When you leave the island you can feel a certain quietness come over you.
There's always interesting music and art and food and crazy people and people who think they're normal but aren't, you name it, it's here. It's the concrete circus where everybody gets a chance to do the do.

What's next for Willie Nile - are there more CDs in the works, any tours on the horizon etc?

There's a number of shows booked till the end of the year. The web site lists them (Willie Nile.com). We're also putting together some tours for next year after the new album comes out. After we finish this new album I intend to make another one right away. The songs are still coming and it's never been more fun so I plan to take advantage of the time and record as many things as I can. Here's to making music and magic and maybe stumbling across a little inspiration here and there...

Well I can't think of a better note to end this interview on than that, so thank you Willie, and I'm glad to see we won't have to wait as long between drinks this time.

August 21, 2008

Book Review: Lines From A Mined MInd: The Words Of John Trudell By John Trudell

What do you see when you look out your door? Do you see a street in a neighbourhood with cars, roads, houses, shops, apartments, and people going about their business? Or do you see occupied territory full of things that don't belong, cluttering up the landscape and despoiling the environment? Two people can look at the same thing and see two completely different things, it all depends on your perspective. One person's normalcy is another person's hell.

Look at what we accept normal: famine, war, pestilence, and death. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have been among us for centuries but we've been too blind to see them. What would happen if the apocalypse came and nobody noticed? Guess what - it's happening everyday and you haven't noticed yet. What? You don't believe me do you - you think I'm full of shit and crazy don't you? According to our society the viewpoint I've just expressed is crazy and full of shit because it doesn't accept the agreed upon version, or vision, or normalcy.

If you're going to read John Trudell's book of poetry and song lyrics, Lines From A Mined Mind: The Words Of John Trudell, published by Fulcrum Books, you better be prepared to have your preconceived notions of how the world works challenged. First of all he has spent the past forty years as a resistance fighter on behalf of his people, the Santee Sioux, and the authority you accept as a government are in his eyes an occupying power. It was from his great-grandparents that we stole the land on which we have built our neighbourhoods, and against whom our governments conducted a campaign of genocide in order to deal with the "Indian Problem". A history like that is enough to give anybody a jaundiced eye when it comes to looking at the world around you, but Trudell has also suffered horrible personal tragedy.
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He was a spokesperson for the all tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans that lasted from 1969 to 1971 and subsequently joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). He was chairman of AIM from 1973-79, but following a mysterious house fire that killed his wife, children and mother in law he resigned. To this day the cause of the fire has never been discovered, but considering his position, and the animosity that surrounded AIM in those days (and that continues to this day) there will always remain the distinct possibility that the fire was set deliberately. It was after that Trudell began writing, and since 1983 he has released eleven recordings of his music, and toured around North America performing and giving readings of his work.

Lines From A Mined Mind is the first time an exhaustive collection of his writing has been gathered into one publication. For those of you not familiar with Trudell's work, he primarily wrote blues, and blues based rock and roll, but more importantly his lyrics dealt with issues that barely anybody was, or is, singing about. It's not only that he wrote about issues affecting Native Americans, but he also wrote about the effect the world we live in has on a human being's spirit; how we have allowed ourselves to be shaped and moulded to such an extent that we no longer notice that we are being manipulated.

In his introduction, titled "From Somewhere Inside My Head" Trudell outlines the precept behind "Mined Mind". "Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process/The intelligence of each arriving human generation/Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs/Of the industrial society each human generation arrives in/The human beings are individually and collectively mined". Society conditions so that we can be of most use to it, but of course as with every industrial operation there is waste product. In our case that ends up being "the fears doubts and insecurity/That affects the human beings perceptional reality in such a way/The human being becomes separated from the being at the expense of being/Resulting in human beings viewing life through their fears and inabilities."

Now, although Trudell has made it cleat that this is how he views the way the world works, he doesn't lay any claims to being superior to the rest of us because of this belief. This is just the backdrop against which all of our struggles to be true to ourselves are played out against. In his poems and song lyrics throughout the book he talks about his struggles to overcome those obstacles. Of course his path is made even more complicated by the fact that he is also a member of a group of people considered to be a conquered race by the majority of our society. For most of his life the government that supposedly is there to protect and serve him, has done its best to deny him his rights as a human being.

What's really wonderful about his poems/lyrics is that they don't just complain about something, or sound like the usual victim's lament. He demands that his readers think about things and poses questions that are designed to try and make you see how his world view came about. In the poem "To God" he ask a few questions about some things that he's been finding confusing "About these Christians/they claim to be from your nation/but man you should see the things they do/all the while blaming it on you". The poem then lists a litany of offences that have been carried out in God's name and then continues "We do not mean to be disrespectful...our people have their own ways/we never even heard of you until not long ago/Your representatives spoke magnificent things of you which we were willing to believe/But from the way they acted/We know you and we were being deceived".

Naturally, as you would expect from a man who has fought for the rights of his people for forty years there are quite a few political poems and songs. However he is more than a one issue person, and writes about everything. From the joy children can bring, our responsibilities to each other as human beings, spirituality, and the relationship between men and women. In fact some of the poems he's written about men and women are the most honest I've read by a man about that subject.

In "Shadow Over Sisterland" he has written probably the strongest denunciation of men's mistreatment of women since John Lennon's "Women Is The Nigger Of The World". "There's a shadow over sisterland/With a Smith & Thomas/Pointed at her head.../Money and authority/Have their own way of talking/...Tethers of chains/Tethers of jewels/Economic bondage/Runs by those rules/". Everything about our society; religion, laws, and even the way the economy runs are geared towards keeping men dominant over women. When you start to consider some of the more regressive laws that have been passed in recent years, ones that have resulted in women going to jail for refusing to have caesarian sections during childbirth, you realize that you might not like the picture he's painting, but that doesn't stop it from being true.

John Trudell is an articulate and intelligent poet and lyricist whose words might confound you because they challenge your vision of the world. You might not like his perspective, and there's a good chance you won't agree with it, yet it you won't be able to deny his sincerity. Because it dares you to look at our society through the eyes of those whose backs its been built on, it's not a pretty picture, but it's a lot more realistic than anything you'll read or see for years to come. For as he makes clear, whether we know it or not, we're all victims of the same machinations.

August 13, 2008

HIV/AIDS: Sex Trade Workers, American Blacks, And A New President For AIDS International

Well the 17th International Conference on AIDS wrapped up in Mexico City over the weekend and despite being attended by over 22,000 delegates from more then 170 countries, not much of anything happened or was said that hasn't been said or done before. In fact aside from the appointment of a slightly controversial figure as the new president of AIDS International, the only event of any real importance during the Conference was a plenary session featuring a representative of an Argentine Sex Workers association as it marked the first time that anybody from the industry was given standing at the conference. In fact it was so inconsequential an event that the biggest news of the week regarding the disease actually took place outside of the Conference with the release of "Left Behind" a report from Black AIDS Institute on the impact of the disease on their community.

Julio Montaner of British Columbia, and the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS was confirmed as the new president of the International AIDS Society at the end of last week's conference. He brings not only a wealth of experience to the job but an outspokenness that's seemed to be sorely lacking amongst AIDS bureaucrats for too long. Dr. Montaner came to Canada in 1981 after graduating from medical school in Argentina, and began working at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia. As well as his residency he also began a research project involving the then obscure disease known as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, which we now know as AIDS.

It was Dr Montaner who started treating the disease with corticosteriods, worked on the first clinical trials for zidovudine (AZT) that was standard treatment for HIV/AIDS for over a decade, and helped pioneer the use of antiretrovirals, the drug cocktails that keep people with the disease alive far longer today then anything else has yet. He also has led the way in making the B.C. Centre an international leader in the field of HIV/AIDS, and making St. Paul's Hospital one of the best treatment sites in the world. He's also a very strong advocate in support of Vancouver's safe injection facility for intravenous drug users, Insite.

His support of Insite, and his general outspokenness, has drawn the ire of Canada's conservative federal government. Federal Minister of Health Tony Clement has even gone on record as criticizing Dr. Montaner by saying he and his colleagues have crossed the line from being scientists to being advocates and activists.

Dr. Montaner's response to his critics was best summed up by his speech at the closing ceremonies of last week's conference where he said that the world's failure to work more resolutely to combat the global epidemic is tantamount to a crime against humanity. He continued by saying we know what causes it, we know how to prevent it spreading, and we've even learned about ways to treat it, so what really matters now is taking action. In others words it's time to shit or get off the pot folks and take some direct action by doing what we know works in order to keep people alive and prevent the disease from spreading any further.

One of most common ways the disease is spread in many parts of the words is through the men, women, and transgendered folk who make their livings selling sex. Up until now nobody has thought to include a representative of the industry at these conferences, which hasn't stopped many organizations from deciding they know what's best for them and often causing more harm then good. This year Elana Reynaga, executive director of the Argentine Association of Female Sex Workers (AMMAR) didn't mince any words when addressing the conference about the current situation facing people around the world in the sex trade.

While her speech was peppered with statistics about the rate of infection among sex workers, its primary focus was to stress the following concerns: people working in the industry be recognized as being legitimately employed, workers be involved in the organization of any programming that impacts on their lives, and that there be an immediate ceasing of passing moral judgements on them as individuals and the nature of their work. In denying them their legitimacy and trying to forcibly "rehabilitate" sex workers, agencies like the International Justice Mission (IJM) who are funded to the tune of millions of dollars by the Gates Foundation to prevent the spread AIDS by fighting prostitution, cause more harm than good.

By coercing governments to crack down on prostitution, they get the American government to threaten to remove states from favoured nation status when it comes to receiving foreign aid, the sex trade is forced underground and the chances of infection increases exponentially. On the other hand, Ms. Reynaga sites the example of Brazil where the government collaborated with the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes on a public health and rights campaign called "No shame girl you're a professional" and the Ministry of Labour now includes prostitute among the list of recognized professions as part of their efforts to combat the spread of the disease.

The continued stigmatization of sex workers and the denial of their rights as individuals places them more at risk then anything else. In some countries sex workers aren't even able to carry condoms as police will use them as evidence of prostitution and threaten to arrest them. As Ms. Reynaga so bluntly puts it, sex workers are dying because of a lack of health care, a lack of condoms, a lack of treatment, and a lack of rights - not because of a lack of sewing machines. (IJM suggests that sex trade workers be taught how to sew so they can get "decent" employment - of course well paying sewing jobs are just lying around waiting to be snapped up aren't they)

Sex trade workers have always been one of the groups at highest risk when it comes to HIV/AIDS, yet instead of helping them organize in their own defence, money is actually being spent on programs that puts them at more risk than if we were to do nothing. Isn't it time people grew up about sex and accepted the fact that people are always going to be willing to buy and sell sex? Instead of trying to pretend it doesn't exist, or pretend we can make it go away, why not ensure that the people involved are as safe as possible by helping them help themselves?

While sex trade workers finally getting a public voice and International Aids selecting a president who will hopefully push for more direct action on fronts that are actually effective is a good sign, the biggest news of the week concerning AIDS didn't come out of the conference in Mexico City, but from north of the border. The Black AIDS Institute's report "Left Behind" revealed statistics that make it obvious that the disease has reached epidemic proportions in Black America. While African Americans only make up thirteen percent of the total American population, 50% of Americans with HIV are African American.

In every single risk group black people are more far more likely to be infected than whites: gay men who are black are twice as likely to be infected as white, more then half of infected drug injectors are black, black people are more likely to be diagnosed late then white which contributes to a much higher death rate - in New York City a black man with HIV is twice as likely to die as a white man with HIV. With black men seven times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, and the percentage of prisoners in the US with access to condoms hovering at 1% of the inmate population, jail represents another real risk to black men for infection.

Unlike other "countries" Black America not only sees a high infection rate among it's at risk population - men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users - it also is showing signs of having symptoms of a generalized epidemic - where the whole population is at risk. While only a quarter of black men have been infected by unprotected sex with women, three quarters of black women have been infected by unprotected sex with men. With black women reporting having multiple partners in a limited time, the chances of the disease spreading among the general population increase dramatically. The report warns of this danger and admonishes black men to be more responsible when it comes to sex.

What must be the bitterest pill for the authors of this report to swallow is the fact that prevention accounts for only four cents out of every dollar spent on domestic programs for HIV/AIDS. Even more ironic is the fact that although the US government insists that countries it funds help combat AIDS have a strategy in place before they receive a penny of aid, America has no strategic plan to combat its own epidemic. It seems like the government of the United States would like its citizens to believe that HIV/AIDS is only something that happens to other people, but not to Americans.

When you combine the statistics reported in "Left Behind" with the disturbing revelation that the U.S. Centre For Disease Control and Prevention has been low balling it's estimated number of new cases of HIV by around 16,300 annually for the last ten years, it starts to look like government has been ignoring the problem in the hopes it will go away. Even worse it looks like they have been cynically hoping as long as they can keep it contained to minority populations, not enough people will care for them to have to do anything about it.

Although if you take these figures in the context of the current American government's policy of allowing their moral agenda to trump actually achieving results with regards to HIV/AIDS funding in foreign countries, their attitude on the home front isn't very surprising. Would you expect them to fund money to hand out condoms or clean needles to prostitutes or intravenous drug users in the United States when they won't over seas? "Left Behind" concludes by saying that as long as we continue to allow political or moral issues to dictate the way we deal with HIV/AIDS people will continue to die.

The numbers don't lie no matter what country or continent you live on. Every year more people are still being infected with HIV/AIDS then are receiving treatment which means not enough is being done to actually prevent the spread of infection. While there was some sign of movement towards a more accepting attitude with regards to sex and the disease at the most recent International Aids conference, and a renewed call for action over talk, we have delayed taking action for so long that it could take decades before we are able to climb out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.

August 1, 2008

New HIV/AIDS Figures - Same Old Story

Well, for a change there's a little bit of good news in the world. The 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic by the United Nations agency responsible for AIDS, UNAIDS, shows that efforts around the world are finally starting to pay off as there are declines in both the numbers of people being infected with, and dying from the virus. On top of that the number of people living with AIDS has stabilized and more people are receiving proper treatment as well.

While Paul De Lay, director of evidence, monitoring, and policy at UNAIDS, said that the increased efforts in teaching people prevention methods are beginning to make a difference, as shown by the drop in the infection rate, he also cautioned that the epidemic was not over in any part of the world. The number of cases may be stabilizing - i.e. not showing any increases - but that number is still very high, and there are parts of the world and marginalized communities where the virus continues to run rampant. As an example he sited the figure that two of every three new cases of AIDS occurs in the Sub Saharan region of Africa.

While some of the figures the report sites show improvement on various fronts: actual number of people living with HIV/AIDS 33 million, new infections down to 2.7 million from 3 million in 2001, total deaths down from 2.2 million in 2005 to 2 million in 2007, number of children infected down from 410,000 to 370,000 in the same period, and the percentage of infected pregnant woman receiving anti-viral drugs has risen to 33% from 14% in those two years, they also show just how far we have to go in order to bring the disease under control. With a new infection rate of 2.7 million people each year and no cure in sight for the disease, it means that any let up in prevention efforts could see the numbers spiralling upwards again.

An example of the breadth of the problem that's still being faced can be found in another figure quoted by Dr. De Lay: for every two new people receiving treatment in the world there are still five new people contracting the disease. Treatment is very expensive, and according to Purmina Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, the cost to supply everybody currently infected with the disease would be 11 billion dollars American annually. That's a cost that will continue to rise substantially of course, unless something is done to reduce the annual infection rate.

While it's possible that the United Nations might reach the target date of 2015 for achieving an actual decline in the numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS, it's goal of universal access to treatment, prevention, care, and support for all those living with the disease by 2010 is not looking good. That makes me wonder how much of the first goal will be met by people currently infected dying, and how much by any actual reduction in new cases of infection? If we can't provide universal prevention, how can we possibly stop the spread of the disease?

The problem is that universal prevention isn't going to happen given the current political climate in the world. The simple facts of life when it comes to HIV/AIDS is that nothing has changed since the 1980's and in order for the virus to spread you need an infected person, an uninfected person and an exchange of bodily fluids between the two of them. The most common ways that happens is through unprotected sex and intravenous drug users sharing needles. Theoretically it should be easy to prevent the disease from spreading, simply ensure that neither of those events occur.

Unfortunately there is quite a bit of disagreement on how you prevent unprotected sex or intravenous drug use. According to the Catholic Church, the current American administration, certain conservative Christian groups, and various Muslim sects the use of condoms is worse than spreading disease, so they recommend abstinence. Actually, they insist on it, at least as much as they are able to. In the case of the current American administration that includes refusing to fund any program that advocates condom use anywhere in the world.

While some countries have remarkably sane attitudes towards ensuring a supply of clean needles for intravenous drug users, Iran has needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran and a needle exchange program in its prison system, others are like Canada and the United States where needle exchanges are barely tolerated and they refuse to admit that drug use even exists in prison. Of course the prisoners don't have sex either, so there's no point in supplying them with condoms.

The solution offered by these folk is for everybody to abstain from pre-marital sex and using intravenous drugs. While the second suggestion is noble, and a good idea, the former is utterly ridiculous, and both deny reality. In the United States itself only twenty-seven per-cent of those people who sign so-called abstinence oaths promising to refrain from pre-marital sex, actually follow through on their vows. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the majority of those who succumb to temptation don't use a condom, so not only risk contracting a sexually transmitted infection, but the other, more traditional, side affect of sex, pregnancy. If the programs success rate is that poor in the U.S. among those who are supposedly willing, what does that say about it's validity as a means of prevention elsewhere?

I started off by saying that there was some good news for a change, and have pretty much gone on to refute that statement with the balance of the article. However, any signs that inroads are being made against the spread of HIV/AIDS are positive and a reason for hope. The problem is that the position is still very precarious and it's not being helped by those who willing to risk other people's lives by imposing their morality on the world. If you don't want to use a condom when you have sex that's your choice, but don't force somebody else to risk their life for a little pleasure.

As former UNAIDS employee Elizabeth Pisani says commenting on the report at her "Wisdom Of Whores" web site, "...somewhere between two and three million people are still getting infected every year with a completely preventable disease that we are spending over 10 billion dollars a year on. That’s a scandal that no amount of report-writing has been able to change."

We've known for close to thirty years how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS yet the disease was allowed to reach epidemic proportions because of so called moral issues and those attitudes haven't changed. The miracle is that there has been any decline in the number of deaths and infections - thank God for the immoral people out there passing out condoms and making a difference.

July 12, 2008

Book Review: boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring Zach Plague

In Anton Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya the characters are in the grip of a enui so all pervasive that they can barely lift themselves from their chaise lounges to deal with their own failures and bankruptcy. Chekhov called the play a comedy and meant the dissolution of the aristocrats depicted in the play to be the objects of our laughter and derision. During the time he was writing, around the end of the nineteenth century, Tsarist Russia was on its last legs, and the land owning aristocracy was seeing the gradual erosion of their power base by a new breed of creature - the monied middle class.

As earning money was beneath them, even talking about working for a living was just too tedious, they were unable to cope with the changes of society and their inherited wealth was gradually being whittled away. Even if the revolution hadn't come along in 1917, judging by Chekhov's depiction, the whole society would have probably collapsed under the weight of its own stupor sooner or later anyway. Empires don't collapse because of armed rebellion, but because of the jaded appetites of its ruling class. Having had their own way for too long they either sink or seek to sate their desire for something new through experimentation in drugs and other dissolute behaviours.

In Zach Plague's new novel, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, being released on July 28th/08, from Featherproof Books, we are dropped into the world of the students and the hangers on of The University of Fine Arts and Academia. The University has institutionalized the visual arts and turned training artists into a cynical process that has sucked the life out of creativity and made art just another commodity. Instead of the urge to paint springing from the desire to create, its become just another means of filling the void of boredom.
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With art being merely another distraction from the "boring, boring", the term they use to describe the emptiness of their lives, the characters are in constant search of anything else to alleviate the tedium. For the majority that means endless rounds of parties, drinking, experimenting with weirder and weirder drugs, and, of course, sex. Adelaide and Allister have both done their best to buck the system and subvert the process by actually doing something with their art and questioning the status quo. Unlike most of their peers their motivation wasn't merely seeking distraction from the "boring, boring", but were attacks upon the system that had sucked the life out of art.

Adelaide created a show based on her applications to the top twenty-five Graduate School fine art programs in the United States. Each piece consisted of her application letter, her letter of acceptance, and the portfolio of art that she had used as proof of her talent. The pieces she had submitted included obvious forgeries of other people's work, stuff she had drawn when she was six, and other similar garbage. Unfortunately the Dean of her university wasn't amused by the show and was suing her because of it.

The art establishment was afraid of Allister because he refused to play the game at all. They feared he had some grand master plan at work that would expose them all to ruin and infamy, and were desperate to get their hands on a journal he had created referred to as the "grey pages". The White Sodality, headed by the mysterious figure of The Platypus, would stop at nothing, including kidnapping, to get their hands on these infamous pages

Yet for all his so called anarchy Allister isn't much more than a conventional, confused young adult when it comes to his feelings for Adelaide. At one time they were a couple, but at the beginning of the book they are no longer together. As the book progresses we begin to wonder if everything that Allister is doing is in order to avoid having to think about Adelaide and how much she really means to him. He has a reputation to consider and he can't blow his attitude of cool aloofness by showing how much it would devastate him to be rejected by Adelaide.

She, on the other hand is descending deeper into a pool of depression, as she keeps telling herself that she won't think of Allister, of course all the while thinking of him. She turns to booze and drugs for solace. Adelaide is also in possession of the infamous "grey papers", and is well aware of how much they are coveted by The Platypus. In those moments she can bring herself to care about things she realizes she must do something about them.

Forty odd years ago Richard Farina wrote a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me in which he re-created the insular world of a collage town, and captured the restlessness of a generation. It was only while writing this review that I realized how much Zach Plague had managed to do something similar for a different generation in boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring. There's the same sense of quiet desperation gripping the characters in this book that was present in Farina's novel. The slow dawning on them that the promise of a life full of meaning, the motivation for going to school and attempting a career in the arts, was a lie, is not depicted in so many words, but the character's actions speak volumes.

On top of that Plague has also managed to stick a few well placed pins into the insular world of contemporary commercial art, and the pretensions of those involved with it. In his depiction creativity is something to be feared because of its potential for rocking the boat and the independence of spirit that's required for it to exist. Gallery owners can't make money if they're unable to control the art that's on their walls, and the best way to do that is work with the schools to ensure the students graduated give them what they want.

boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring is in of itself a piece of art as Plague has experimented with various means of publishing the work. It can be purchased as a more or less conventional book, a series of posters made up of the pages, or as a CD. The book is put together in what appears a haphazard manner. Excerpts of hand written pages scattered among the typeset, text meanders across the page continuing down margins, pages are formatted so the book needs to be held sideways on occasion, the fancy calligraphy spelling out the name of the character involved in a particular chapter is sometimes almost illegible but never quite, and the final part of the book is presented as a photo copy of a separate book.

Judging by a sample of the posters that I received, you would get the same text, but as a series of relatively unconnected pages pieced together on large poster paper. Small sections of the book are kept together so that ideas and thoughts aren't completely dislocated, and at the end of each section is included directions to assist you in finding the appropriate location on the appropriate poster where it continues. I'm not sure if the author is taking the piss here with academics and there habit of deconstruction - or if he's making a comment on content and form, but it comes across as being just a little too much like the art world he is so critical of in the pages of the book. To be fair though, it's impossible to judge the impact of these posters without having access to all of them.

Whatever else boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring by Zach Plague is, it's an intelligent, sometimes witty, and sometimes sad book that offers sharp criticism of the art world, and our society in general. Boredom has brought many an empire to its knees in the past, and Zach Plague has done a fine job of depicting the enui that sucks the life out of us.

June 9, 2008

European Cup 2008: Football At It's Best

Every four years sixteen of Europe's top national football (soccer) sides compete in the European Cup. Held exactly half way between World Cups, the European Cup, is in some ways even more intense and passionate than its bigger cousin. Rivalries between nations in Europe, on and off the football pitch, extend back hundreds of years. Border skirmishes and other ancient grudges are now played out by twenty-two men in front of screaming thousands, instead of in the mud and across no-man's land.

As is the case in all major international competitions the country hosting the event automatically qualifies while the rest of the spots are decided in a series of run-off games. Under normal circumstances that would leave fifteen spots up for grabs, but this year's event is being jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria, reducing the number of spots available. Unlike EuroCup/04 which was hosted by Portugal whose team would have qualified anyway, neither of this year's hosts were likely to have made it into the competition. I'm sure this has led to quite a bit of resentment on the part of teams like England, a perennial power, who failed to qualify.

Of course the security forces of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are lending men and expertise to its smaller neighbours, are probably relieved that they won't have to worry about the notorious English fans and their potential for violence. They've enough to worry about organizing security in two countries and multiple venues, where total attendance is expected to be in the millions, without wondering whether or not inebriated Englishmen will decide to go on a rampage.

Even without the English in attendance things are tense enough as it is with some of the previously mentioned nationalist grudges starting to simmer over already. Hostilities broke out between Polish and German fans in the run-up to Sunday's, June 8th, match between the two countries resulting in the arrest of seven German men. Hopefully once the early elimination rounds are over, when half the teams have gone home and the crowds thinned out some, the chances of this sort of thing happening will be reduced.

The sixteen teams have been divided up into four groups by random draw and play one game each against the teams in their section. The top two finishers in each group advance to the next round where the team with the most points accumulated in the first round plays off against the team with the fewest. A team receives three points for a win and a point for a tie in the preliminary round. From then on the games are sudden death, and decided by penalty kick shoot-outs if tied at the end of regulation and two, twenty minute, overtime periods.

In a shoot-out each team initially starts with five players, selected from those who are currently playing, and take turns trying to score on the goalie from the penalty kick mark. The team that scores the most goals out of five wins the game. If the teams are still tied at the end of the first five penalty kicks they proceed on to sudden death penalty kicks, where the first side to gain the advantage wins. If the first side scores, the second is given an opportunity to tie, but if they fail, the game is over.

With the goalie not allowed to leave his goal line, or move, until the shooter does, the advantage would appear to reside with the kicker. After all he has a huge amount of net to shoot at, and the goalie can only guess where he thinks the ball will be shot. Yet many a star laden team has gone down to defeat at the hands of an underdog because a game has gone to penalty kicks and their sure-footed scorers aren't able to find the net.

In the last EuroCup, underdog Greece won the championship by playing a tight defensive game and winning games on penalty kicks when their more highly rated opponents succumbed to the pressure of the situation. Greece is back again this year and is once again going to be considered fortunate to make it out of the round robin segment of the tournament - of course that's what everybody predicted four years ago when they won it all in the final over host country Portugal.

As is the case with every international football event, there are certain teams which are always considered a threat to win, and this European Cup is no exception. Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands almost always seem to field a team that can threaten to go all the way. This year the advantage is clearly Germany's as through the luck of the draw the other three have all ended up in the same preliminary group which means one of them are going home early. Even without that bit of good luck (if you're a German supporter) the Germans have to be considered favoured as their star players are all in top health and at the peak of their careers. Their only weakness lies in goal, as their keeper has a history of giving up weak goals.

Still, with Italy losing her captain, Fabio Cannavaro to injury in their first practice, and both the French and Dutch sides having star players just back from injury, even without the fortuitous draw, the real threat to the first major German international championship since the 1996 Euros could come from another source. Portugal and Spain are Europe's most renowned under achievers. They always seem to be on the cusp of greatness, but never manage to win in the end.

The loss to Greece on their home turf must have devastating to the Portuguese, but it might give them the desperation required to finally win it all. Yesterday's 2 - 0 victory over a tough Turkish side indicated that they aren't about to go quietly, and any team that can call upon Cristiano Ronaldo - arguably the best player in the world right now - can't be discounted. He scored a remarkable forty-two goals this year for Manchester United and is the front runner for the Federation International Football Association's (FIFA) world player of the year trophy.

The great thing about the EuroCup is that you can't count anybody out, except maybe the two host teams this year. Russia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, The Czech Republic, and Sweden, can always be counted on to field solid teams with enough talent to pull off an upset. All it takes is a couple of missed opportunities - a goal post here and a missed net there - and a favourite can find themselves sitting on the sidelines wondering what the hell happened. Germany only needs to look at its record of no victories, three draws, and three defeats in the last two EuroCups to be reminded of how dangerous a tournament this can be.

While the idea of a tournament exclusive to Europeans is somewhat chauvinistic, excluding as it does teams from South America and Africa where the game is every bit as popular as it is in Europe, there is no denying that the European Cup makes for nearly four weeks of great football action. Do yourself a favour and check out a match or two, but be careful, you might just find yourself getting addicted. In Canada the games are being broadcast on TSN (The Sports Network) and Sportsnet with each station's web site broadcasting taped highlights of all the games.

May 27, 2008

Book Review: A Case Of Exploding Mangoes Mohammed Hanif

While recent years have seen an explosion of fiction from Indian authors being published in the West, the same can't be said for the other country that was born out of Partition; Pakistan. Pakistan remains something of a mystery for most people in North America, occasionally gaining notoriety for acts of violence against women, political assassinations, and insinuations about its ties with the Taliban and the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Ironically it was its ties to the very same Taliban in the 1980s that gave it favoured nation status with Ronald Regan's administration in Washington. Pakistan was the conduit for American money and military aid to those resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In those days Pakistan was ruled by General Zia, who had led the military in the coup that had ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, (father of recently assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), and was responsible for his execution. Zia was America's "tame" Muslim, and they turned a blind eye to his introduction of laws that allowed for women to be stoned to death for adultery.

General Zia's career and life came to an abrupt end when his presidential plane crashed on take off killing all on board. There has never been an official explanation as to what caused the crash that ended Zia's eleven year reign, but now, some twenty odd years later, an unofficial explanation has been put forward. Mohammed Hanif's new novel, A Case Of Exploding Mangos, published by Random House Canada, plunks us down in Pakistan for the last month of President Zia's life, and takes us behind the scenes everywhere from the American Embassy in Islamabad, the First Lady of Pakistan's private chambers, to a military prison.
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The war in Afghanistan is winding down, the Taliban are closing in on Kabul, and the Russians are pulling out. For their role in allowing the American's to use Pakistan as their staging ground for funding the insurrection President Zia and his chief of staff have gone to the top of the charts as the top ten bulwarks against Communist expansion in the free world. The fact that they run a despotic military dictatorship where the prisons are full of those who might not agree with them is conveniently ignored.

Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri is in trouble. He somehow managed to miss the fact that one of the men in his squadron at the Pakistan Airforce Academy was not present during roll call that morning, and had not only gone AWOL but stolen a small plane. His seniors aren't buying his story of the series of coincidences that prevented him from first of all noticing Cadet Obaid-ul-llah was missing and then not reporting the same. The fact that the two young men were known to be close friends probably has a lot to do with that, and they can't believe that Ali knew nothing about his buddy's plans in advance.

Ali knows he's in trouble when the ISI are called in and a Major in the intelligence service shows up in car without licence plates to take him for a drive into the mountains. He doesn't realize quite how much trouble though until he's locked up in the prison where they keep the rest of the political prisoners. Yet if he thinks he's having a bad time of it, it's nothing compared to what President Zia is going through.

The First Lady found a picture of him ogling a Western journalist's breasts and has declared him dead to her and for three days running he's opened his Koran to the story of Jonah trapped in the belly of the whale and is begging to think there's a message there he's missing. On top of that he's suffering from worms, his general staff are spying on each other, and he's so sure that someone wants to kill him that he's locked himself in his armed force's residence and refuses to move into the new Presidential Palace. Sometimes paranoia is justified, and in this case the president is right, there is a plot in motion to have him assassinated.
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In point of fact there is more than one plot underway to bring Zia's life and rule to an end. When his personal head of security has an unfortunate accident - his parachute inexplicably fails to open during a ceremonial jump for the Nation Day parade and he splatters on the pavement in front of the President - Zia is obviously distraught. He would probably be even more distraught if he knew that during the parade the head of his intelligence service was standing behind the president rehearsing his spontaneous words of regret about the death of the aforementioned bodyguard. Although probably not nearly as distraught if he knew the same man was also rehearsing his first address to the nation after the bitter blow of losing our beloved President Zia.

A Case Of Exploding Mangoes takes no prisoners when it comes to selecting targets for its satire. From its depiction of Saudi Princes with private doctors dedicated to the care of their privates, the marriage of convenience between the US and Pakistan, how to adjudicate rape cases under supposed Muslim law (the woman must be a virgin, there has to be at least four men involved for it to be rape, the woman must be able to identify all four men involved, and she must supply four male witnesses attesting to her status as a virtuous woman), to the petty jealousies and infighting among the men surrounding Zia in the upper echelons of power, nobody and nothing escapes unscathed.

While Mohammed Hanif has written a novel that is mainly light in tone and is at times quite funny, the humour at times is more than a little dark and bitter. Through the character of Ali Shigri we learn how to survive in this political climate through his ability to play dumb when needed, kiss ass when appropriate, and how to avoid the knife in the back while twisting your own blade in deeper. While we don't see everything through his eyes, his narrative is the one that leads us into the dark heart beating beneath the surface of this seemingly light story.

Hanif is playing on dangerous ground with this novel, as there is much in here that could be interpreted by people without senses of humour as offensive. The real trouble is that people don't like having their hypocrisy displayed quite as publicly as A Case Of Exploding Mangoes makes a point of doing. Nobody is safe, not even OBL of Laden and co. Construction from Saudi Arabia, who just wants people to pay attention to him at the American Ambassador's Fourth of July party celebrating victory in Afghanistan in 1988.

While A Case Of Exploding Mangoes won't give you any real insights into what life in Pakistan is like, it does lift the veil on a period of history that neither the folks in Washington, Pakistan, or the Taliban would like anyone to remember. Its dark humour and merciless depiction of the politics of convenience make it a refreshing antidote to today's omnipresent "War On Terror" rhetoric.

A Case Of Exploding Mangoes can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 25, 2008

Just Say Yes - To Safe Injection Sites.

I'm an addict. I ran from my pain for twenty years - from thirteen to thirty-three I drank and ingested more substances than I care to think about. The only wonder is that I managed to stay alive long enough to stop. I was lucky. So I'm not about to tell you that drugs are romantic or that being a drunk or an addict anything special. There's nothing romantic about having to steal from those you love in order to fulfill an addiction; there's no excuse for a betrayal of trust of that magnitude.

Yet I don't think I was evil, or those who are addicted are criminals. Addictions can cause criminal behaviour because the need they create in the person has to be met, but the addiction itself is an illness that needs to be treated. That doesn't meant that an addict is not responsible for their criminal behaviour because they are, but there must be a distinction made between the illness and the criminal behaviour. I went to jail for my criminal behaviour which was right, but I was not punished for being sick which was also right.

Like I said before I was lucky. Of course it didn't hurt that by the time I was before the courts I had already begun to seek help on my own - but I was still fortunate that the judge who sentenced me was compassionate, and understood that I was already making an effort to get clear. He could have sentenced me to a year in jail, instead he sentenced me to seven weekends, four of which I served in a halfway house. That way I was able to continue going to therapy and receiving treatment for the root cause of my addictions.

In 2003 the city of Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada, was given permission by the federal government to open Insite, a safe injection facility. Addicts are allowed to come there with their drugs and inject under the supervision of nurses, using clean needles, and without fear of arrest. It was originally given a three year exemption from the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and has had two one year extensions granted while international research was reviewed and new research was conducted in order to gauge the facility's effectiveness.

The last extension expires June 30th, 2008 and the people who run the facility have been desperately trying to talk with either Prime Minister Steven Harper or his Health Minister Tony Clement, the men who will make the decision whether the site can continue to stay open. Unfortunately neither man seems to want to talk to anybody from the facility directly. Mark Townsend is the executive director of the organization that runs Insite, and has been trying for two and half years to arrange a meeting with either of the men to explain why it is a science and public health issue, and shouldn't be about ideology or politics.

Insite is about saving peoples lives; by getting intravenous drug users off the street and preventing the spread of disease through the use of shared needles, and through helping people get off drugs. They do not dispense any drugs, or offer treatment on site, but can and do refer people to detoxification programs when they ask about them. In an effort to save the facility, and convince the federal government that it should be considered part of the health care system in British Columbia, the staff of Insite have supplied extensive research that proves its success and that it enjoys widespread support across Canada for its efforts.

The problem is that it doesn't appear the government is listening to anything anybody says. Prime Minister Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is notorious for its socially conservative positions. While the previous government was prepared to introduce legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, the Conservatives are more in line with the "War On Drugs" policy advocated by the American administration. Although they have yet to make any formal announcement about Insite, their history, combined with recent actions and statements, don't bode well for its future.

When Steven Harper was campaigning in the last federal election he made a point of stopping in Vancouver to announce that his party would brook no leniency toward illicit drug users and that they were the only party willing to anything about "the drug crisis in Canada". When an international police organization, that includes former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada's federal police force, that advocates treatment over punishment for street drugs issued a statement in support of Insite, it was the Health Minister's staff who gave reporters the name of a police organization who held an opposing view.

Perhaps most telling though was the government's reaction to research they had commissioned that ended up supporting Insite. They said that science alone would not be the deciding factor. An interesting statement to make when you consider that the purpose for delaying a final decision these last two years has been so that proper research could be conducted into the effectiveness of the facility. Now that science has proven that safe injections sites at the very least do not encourage drug use, and in fact are responsible for a decline in both drug use and the spread of disease, the government is downplaying the importance of these findings. It's not hard to guess what their reaction would have been if the findings had shown that the facility had increased drug usage and encouraged people to stay addicted.

However, they didn't. The findings substantiated what has been proven over and over again in countries around the world where needle exchanges and safe injection sites are the norm. Fewer people die of overdoses, fewer people catch and spread diseases, and more people are encouraged to stop using drugs and seek help for their addiction problems.Yet, in spite of all the evidence that supporting it, Canada's government is apparently getting ready to shut Insite's doors.

Isn't it time to stop saying no, and start saying yes to safe injection sites? There's no crime in showing a little compassion once in a while.

May 21, 2008

Residential School Legacy Lingers On

I once postulated that Western society was stuck in a cycle of post traumatic stress syndrome induced abuse dating back to at least World War One. Nearly a whole generation of European men were either killed or injured in that four year period. My father's father was a medic in the British army and in 1917 was caught in a mustard gas attack. As a medic he would have had to retrieve the dead and dying from the battle field and seen horrors enough to freeze a soul. After the war he drifted around the world for ten years before settling in Brazil where he met my grandmother and my father was born. They immigrated to Canada in 1931, and my grandfather never worked another day from then until his death in 1978.

He physically and emotionally abused my father, and in turn my father physically and sexually abused me. I was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time I was thirteen and didn't stop until I was thirty-three. It was then that I started to recover the memories of being abused as a young child and began the long process of recovery. I'm still in therapy, digging out the deep planted seeds abuse planted that governed my behaviour for most of my life. One way or another though, the cycle of abuse in my family has stopped with me.

On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, is going to stand up in the House of Commons to officially apologize to Native Canadians for the residential school system. For close to a hundred years the government of Canada sponsored church run schools that stole Native children away from their parents. Aside from the shock of being stolen from their parents, they were also forbidden to speak their own languages, and taught that all they believed in was evil. If that wasn't bad enough, at a minimum, 50% of all children who attended these schools were either sexually or physically abused, if not both, by the staff.

What I'm most interested in knowing is who exactly the Prime Minister is going to be apologizing to and what he is going to be apologizing for? With the first residential school opening in the 1870's and the last one closing in the 1970's we can be sure that not everybody who went to one is still alive. Is he going to stand up in the House of Commons and say on behalf of the Canadian government we're sorry that previous governments oversaw attempted cultural genocide, allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be sexually and physically abused, and successfully tore the heart out of Native communities across Canada for subsequent generations?

There is also the question of the apology he owes to today's generation of Native Canadians. You see, for those of you who might have missed this bit of information, suicide and substance abuse among young Native Canadians is at an astronomical rate - the suicide rate alone is four times higher than for non-Natives. What this has to do with residential schools is that in a recent study done of slightly over 500 Native injection drug users in British Columbia between the ages of sixteen and thirty, nearly 50% of them had been sexually abused by a family member, and half of that number reported having at least one parent who was a survivor of the residential school system.

For those of you who can't do the math, that's twenty-five per-cent of this one study group are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. The study didn't ask, or if it did the figures weren't reported, what percentage of the participants had grandparents who were part of the residential school system, but I'd be willing to bet that the further back you go in each person's family tree the more survivors of the system you'll find. For most of these young people, like myself, the cycle of abuse probably started in their grandparent's generation, if not their great-grandparents.

In an earlier article about Canada's residential schools I mentioned the government was establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would travel across the country hearing people's stories, and digging into the schools' records. Headed by Native Canadian Judge, Justice Harry LaForme, it is patterned after a similar committee that the South African government established under the first Black majority rule government to try and find a way to peacefully bring the White and Black populations together after the horrors of apartheid.

For this committee to have any serious impact on the lives of Native Canadians, and to take a true measure of the impact the residential school system had on the population, it must examine statistics like those recorded above from across Canada. A study group focusing only on intravenous drug users leaves out large numbers of at risk populations. We already know the suicide rate is four times as high, but how many of those children who committed suicide had a parent or grandparent survive the residential school system and pass their damage on down to their child and grandchild?

For the first three hundred years of Canadian history governments, first the French and then the British, tried to deal with the "Indian problem" militarily. But when it became obvious they weren't going to be able to kill them all, the government decided to switch from genocide to cultural genocide via the residential school system. For Native Canadians the cycle of abuse started when the first child was stolen from his or her parents and placed within the four walls of a residential school. Every young person who commits suicide or chooses to escape the world through substance abuse today is an indication that the cycle continues.

If Steven Harper stands up in the House of Commons on June 11th and doesn't recognize the damage that is still being done to people today because of the residential schools, if he doesn't acknowledge that his government is continuing to fail our country's native population just like all previous government's have by allowing this cycle to continue, his apology won't be anything more than a meaningless gesture. The sins of our great-grandparents are still being visited upon Canada's native population today and there aren't enough words to apologize for that.

May 8, 2008

Book Review: The Wisdom Of Whores Elizabeth Pisani

It's close to thirty years ago since British rocker Ian Drury had a hit with the song "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll". Somehow or other nobody had strung the three together in quite the catchy way he had before, and his little ditty's title caught more then a few people's imaginations. In those innocent days prior to AIDS and the "War On Drugs", it became the catch phrase of choice for a great many people to sum up what they needed to make them happy. That Drury might have been satirizing the rock star image with his song was lost on ninety per cent of his audience, who had latched onto the title as a lifestyle definition.

The world spins around and ten years later, in the 1980s, I couldn't read the obituary pages of my local paper without reading that a man of my generation had died of unknown causes, leaving behind special friends, but very rarely, a wife or parents to mourn him. AIDS was very much a mystery in those early days in the mid to late eighties, but even then we knew it was caused by sharing bodily fluids and the quickest way of catching it was through unprotected sex and sharing a needle. It was only a matter of time before it spread beyond gay men. Sex and Drugs were "very good indeed" no longer.

When the Canadian Red Cross came clean about not testing their blood properly and giving hemophiliacs infected blood, (and oh by the way if you received a blood transfusion between these dates you really should get yourself checked), the "innocent victim" syndrome in AIDS reared its ugly head. Just what the world needed - another way to stigmatize people who were dying because they had sex or shared a needle. The Christian right in North America had already labelled HIV and AIDS as the wages of sin, and being able to say they only have themselves to blame, while others are blameless, only added fuel to the pyre they were building to burn the sinners.
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In the preface to her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani says that when people ask her what she does for a living she cheerfully replies "Sex and drugs" as it's easier than having to explain to people that an Epidemiologist studies how diseases spread in populations. For ten year of her life, starting in 1996, Ms Pisani worked on the front lines of HIV/AIDs research looking for patterns in how the disease was spread, developing ways of curbing the spread of the diseases, trying to figure out how many people were potentially at risk, and of course dealing with the political fallout that always seems to accompany sex and drugs.

In the course of her work she has run police roadblocks in Indonesia carrying blood samples and used syringes, sat on street corners with prostitutes in the border towns of China and Tibet discussing the economics of their trade, worked with the transgendered prostitutes of Indonesia, argued policy with officials from the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), Muslim Clerics, and brothel owners in Thailand. The Wisdom Of Whores are the conclusions she has reached after these ten years of field work about what works in the fight against HIV/AIDS and what doesn't work. These conclusions are backed up by not only her years of personal observation, but by the data she has crunched charting the growth of the disease and the effectiveness of the various means used to prevent it's spread in different countries and among different social groups.

One of the most frightening things about this book is, at the time it was being written, the amount of influence being exerted on HIV/AIDS programming by people with political and religious agendas. From Muslim Clerics in Africa and South East Asia saying that not using condoms proves how faithful you are, the American government going so far as prohibiting their staff from having access to research that proves the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD), to American policy that tries to prevent any agency, whether they receive American money or not, from advocating the use of condoms as a preventative measure; it's more important to these people that their view of the world is adhered to than the disease be prevented from spreading.

In spite of the statistical evidence that Ms. Pisani cites, that over 70% of the people who sign pledges vowing to abstain from pre-marital sex end up having pre-marital sex, the American government still preaches abstinence as the answer for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The fact that the majority of these people also practice unprotected sex is even more damning. That those figures are from the US, and not a country with a flourishing sex trade, makes the whole abstinence argument even more spurious.
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In spite of what any number of groups might want you to think, according to Ms. Pisani's research very few people are sold into the sex trade of South East Asia as slaves. It's more a matter of simple economics; a women can earn more in a half hour as a prostitute than she would for making 150 t-shirts in a sweat shop. If people are really so concerned about women in the sex trade maybe they should consider paying a little more money for their brand name t-shirts so these women have a viable alternative to make money to feed their families.

In all of these countries where condom programs have been implemented within the sex trade infection rates have been halved and continue to decline. The programs that work best are the ones like the one implemented by Thailand. The government allows the brothels to operate as long as the women working there use condoms, if they don't the government closes it down and the owner loses his source of income. By routinely randomly testing all the women working in the brothels for STDs the government is able to tell if condoms are being used. Not only has this helped prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS but it has also cut down on the spread of all STDs among clients, brothel workers, and all of their families.

The sharing of needles by intravenous drug users is of course the other big way that the virus is spread. In spite of this, resistance to needle exchanges as a means of prevention still runs high. Those who believe in the war on drugs are convinced that needle exchange programs encourage drug use and don't want anything to do with it. Yet statistics presented by Ms. Pisani shows that needle exchanges not only help prevent the spread of disease, they work to help people get off drugs. Two or three times a week they are in contact with social workers who can give them referrals to treatment programs and provide them support in quitting drugs and a good many of them take advantage of it.

The other big issue that Ms. Pisani raises is the need to balance treatment and prevention. While nobody wants to see anybody die when there are drugs available that could prolong their lives for as much as ten years, the problem is now that too much of the HIV/AIDS budget is being spent on treatment and prevention is falling by the wayside. As a result people are still being infected in spite of everything we know. Politicians are much happier when they can say they are giving money to treat pregnant women so they don't spread the disease to their unborn child, or to treat a child who was born with the virus, than they are in announcing money to help people who have sex and use drugs from catching it.

The Wisdom Of Whores is like a gale of fresh air being blown through the musty smelling bullshit that has surrounded the whole HIV/AIDS issue from day one. It's not just the holy cows of the right Ms. Pisani takes on either in her battle to save lives. Everything from peer counselling to confidential testing is put under her microscope for analysis; saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease is what concerns her not what people think is right. I'm sure this will get a lot of people's backs up, but it's hard to argue with her statistics about rates of infection.

It's hard to imagine a book about a subject as dry sounding as epidemiology being a page turner and entertaining, but Elizabeth Pisani has managed to do just that. She is irreverent, but never irrelevant; by turns angry, compassionate, and frustrated, she is a refreshingly human voice among so many speech makers. Sex and drugs might be taboo subjects for most people, but they are Elizabeth's bread and butter, and according to her they are at the root of HIV/AIDS. The Wisdom Of Whores paints as true a picture as possible of the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS and where it stands today as you're liable to ever read. As well as the book you can also go the Wisdom Of Whores web site to receive even more up to date information and join in the ongoing discussion on how the world is doing in its fight to keep people alive.

The Wisdom Of Whores can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

April 28, 2008

Music Review: Various Performers The T4 Project

I was in London, England in the summer of 1980 only a few weeks after riots had ripped through the city. There were still store fronts in Portobello Road with fresh plywood where there once had been windows, and tension and tempers were still high. Most of the tension centred around mistrust of the police by the large Black community in the city; unwarranted and over eager attention by the Bobbies towards London's Blacks had been one of the causes of the riot.

One of the lead stories carried by the underground press while I was in town was of a Black man, a Rastafarian, being picked up by the police on suspicion that he was planning arson because he was carrying a Jerry can filled with gasoline. The fact that the police hustled him to jail without doing anything to verify his claim that he'd run out of gas and was making his way back to his vehicle didn't do much for their credibility or their relationship with the Black community.

It was Margaret Thatcher's England, and being poor or a minority, (and usually both) was tantamount to committing a crime. The train I took out of London passed through Brixton, where poor whites and immigrants lived stacked on top of each other; a powder keg of anger and resentment that had only needed the tiniest of sparks to blow the lid off. The rioting had started here and spread out across London with the beating up of of some South Asians by members of the neo-Nazi, skin head movement, The National Front.
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Looking out my window as the train rattled through, at row after row of narrow streets crammed with row-housing, where the only relief offered was the occasional block of council flats, I could see how these neighbourhoods gave birth to Punk four years earlier in 1976. Punk was an expression of the anger and hopelessness felt by so many, as the "No Future" that the Sex Pistols sang about was a reality for most people under thirty living there. The Clash, Billy Bragg, and others worked to shape and direct the raw anger into resistance through songs like "Guns Of Brixton".

To me what always separated the real punks from the posers, were the ones who stayed true to those political roots. That didn't mean they had to be from the streets of Brixton, or even Brits, but they had to be working in the same spirit. I've known that bands are still out there, but I haven't seen anything that resembles the spirit of resistance that I remember from the 1980s until now with the Mental Records release of The T4 Project.

The T4 Project is the brain child of Mental Records producer Shannon Saint Ryan, who composed the music, produced the CD, played guitar, and co-ordinated the community of musicians, artists, and technicians who worked together for two and a half years to bring the project to it's final fruition. The T4 Project is an eighteen track Punk Rock song cycle and companion, CD booklet sized, graphic novel packaged together as a story based concept album. While that might sound more like the description of an album from one of the progressive rock dinosaurs, both the concept and the content of The T4 Project are far removed from the sort of pretentious clap trap that used to permeate those recordings.

The T4 of the title is a bacteriophage virus that propagates by invading a cell until its filled to bursting. Once the original host bursts the virus rapidly multiplies by infecting more cells within a body. The T4 virus is being used here as a metaphor for the manner in which societies indoctrinate young people with any means at their disposal so they conform to the status quo and be the link in the chain that passes the message along to those coming after them.

The booklet and the song cycle together tell the story of the virus and some of the people who are trying to resist being infected by it. Interspersed between the songs are samples of the way in which the world spreads the virus. These take the form of commercials; become an unthinking drone by joining the army, take a pill that cures cancer - potential side effects include may cause cancer. Or samples of speeches that reflect prevalent attitudes; a reminder to doctors not to cure patients, only to treat their symptoms so they don't put themselves out of business.

The music throughout is undeniably Punk and is played by musicians representing bands from Germany, Canada, the United States, and of course Great Britain. The rhythm section alone included former Subhuman's drummer, Trotsky, from Germany, Spike Smith from England, whose drumming career has included Morrissey and The Damned, Jay Bentley of Bad Religion brought his bass from Canada, and The Buzzcocks' bass player Tony Barber, who now lives in the States.

In my mind the composition of those involved in putting this together is almost as important as the recording itself. It signifies that this project is more than just one person, or one band spouting off. Rather it's an attempt by a community of like minded people to give voice to what they believe in. Aside from the people named above, there were also guitarists and vocalists, all the technicians, a forty person choir, and the artists who worked on the graphic comic and other associated products who all had a hand in making this work.

In some ways The T4 Project is the quintessential Punk project in the way that it was put together and in the content that it offers. Punk was always marked by a do it your self ethos that allowed performers to remain independent of record companies. Part of it was because labels initially didn't want anything to do with Punks, so if they wanted to record and distribute their music they had to do it on their own, but it was also a way of ensuring that they had complete independence when it came to what they produced. Nobody was going to tell them what they could play, how they should dress, or what they should say.

Punk was in of itself an antidote for the virus of imposed conformity and unquestioning obedience and with The T4 Project those involved have created a vehicle to bring that philosophy to life. For those of you who've forgotten how potent Punk can be when played well and with passion, or those who never knew, than this disc is for you. Aside from all the philosophy and politics, it's still, first and foremost, about the music - and this a disc of great music.

As an added bonus if you slip The T4 Project into your CD ROM drive on your computer you get a video set to music from the disc showing scenes from its making. The T4 Project can be pre-ordered now and goes on sale May 13th 2008.

April 13, 2008

Grpahic Novel Review: The Complete Underworld Adapted By Kris Oprisko

Vampires versus Werewolfs: Ladies and gentlemen step right up and watch the undead try and kill each other. In the red corner, the previously undefeated rulers of the undead; sexy and decadent - The Vampires. Facing off against them in the blue corner, their former slaves, thought hunted to extinction, but secretly making a comeback: they're furry and barbaric with vengeance on their minds - The Lycan.

The movies Underworld and Underworld Evolution introduced audiences to a world where Vampires and Werewolfs had been at war with each other for centuries. While the Vampires had believed that their former slaves had been hunted nearly to extinction, treachery and deceit by an ambitious second in command had actually allowed the Werewolfs to flourish in secret.

In fact, they were more than flourishing. Under the guidance of their supposedly dead leader, Lucien, (did I mention betrayal among the Vampires), they were in the process of creating a super being who combined the powers of the two species. To the Vampires, believing as most of them do that Werewolfs are inferior beings, the thought of mixing the blood of the two races was an abomination that mustn't be allowed to happen.
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Underworld Evolution, much as the title implies, takes us on the first step down the road with the new species, as the two heroes from the first movie, Michael the mix blood, and Selene the Vampire who has fallen in love with him, have to take on the originators of both species. Marcus and William Corvinus; twin brothers with a difference. One of them is a were-wolf and the other a vampire. Way back when, in the dark ages, they started it all.

The movies were really well done and great visual treats. Although slightly over the top on occasion, they were highly entertaining and quite a lot of fun. A perfect mixture of horror movie gore, love story, and plain old fashioned adventure story, offering a new and interesting take on the world of the undead. What really made them so successful was the matter of fact way in which both species and their world was dealt with. It made it very easy as an audience member to suspend your disbelief and accept the reality the film makers had created.

So when I found out that IDW Publishing had created graphic novel versions of both movies I was intrigued. I have seen movies that have been made from graphic novels, and graphic novels that were adaptations of novels, so I was interested in seeing how well a kinetic art form like film could be translated into the static form of a graphic novel.

The Complete Underworld is an omnibus that not only contains adaptations of both Underworld and Underworld Evolution but a prequel story set in the same world called Red In Tooth and Claw. Both adaptations were written by Kris Oprisko, with art work supplied by Nick Postic and Nick Marinkovitch for Underworld, ( the same team also worked on the prequel) and Antonio Vasquez for Underworld Evolution.

When critiquing any adaptation the key is not to get caught up in comparing it to the original story, but in trying to see how well the adaptors have managed to recreate the story in their medium. The question I always try and ask myself is whether or not the adaptation works as a stand alone project, and would someone unfamiliar with the original be able to enjoy it.

Both adaptations have done admirable jobs of telling the stories, so that even the uninitiated would have no problem in following what was happening. The major difference between the two adaptations is the artwork. While both did fine jobs in doing their part in visually imparting information to the reader, Nick Postic and Nick Marinkovitch's work in Underworld went quite a bit further in creating the atmosphere appropriate to a world existing in the shadows of the mortal world.

Backgrounds are indistinct blurs of dark colours from which a white face or a weapon will all of a sudden materialize. Colours are muted, if distinct at all, yet with deft line work the artists have made it easy for the reader to distinguish between characters and species. They have definitely taken their cues from the design team of the movies, but carried the depth of the darkness even further to great effect.

In comparison I found the more realistic approach taken by Antonio Vasquez in the adaptation of Underworld Evolution to be a bit jarring. While it's true that it made it easier to follow the story line on occasion, it also made it harder to believe in the world that the action was taking place in. The art work was very "comic book" and made no attempt to create the type of atmosphere that had made the first adaptation so effective.

The bonus prequel, Red In Tooth And Claw, was a surprise in terms of it's content. The writers have created the back story for the large Werewolf named Raze from the movie Underworld. It is quite a good, inspired piece, of story telling that manages to recreate the world of the Vampires and Werewolves in another environment. What I really liked about it was its refusal to show either the Werewolfs or the Vampires as "good guys" While our sympathies might be initially with the Werewolfs because they are being hunted by a group of Vampires, the fact that Lucien decides to "turn" the mortal version of Raze because he would be a useful Werewolf makes him a lot less sympathetic.

The Complete Underworld, containing graphic novel adaptations of the movies, Underworld, Underworld Evolution, and a new original story set in the same world, Red In Tooth And Claw, does a good job of bringing the world of the movies to life. While the artwork in the adaptation of the second movie wasn't as convincing as its predecessor, it still managed to do a good job of telling the story. This omnibus collection makes both a great companion piece for the movies that also works in its own right as a stand alone adaptation of the stories.

April 9, 2008

DVD Review: Gang Of Souls: A Generation Of Beats

At the end of World War One an artistic movement sprang up in France that was in direct response to the horrors people witnessed in the war. The surrealists, the Dadaist in particular, were a criticism and rejection of the values and the society that had allowed such a thing to occur. The works they created were sometimes violent, often outrageous, and always a condemnation of what they saw as the failings of the world around them.

At the end of World War Two something similar happened in the United States, as a group of writers, poets primarily, but prose writers as well, challenged conventionality through both the style of their writing and their subject matter. While the majority of Americans were jumping feet first into the post war economic boom period; celebrating materialism and the American Dream, the Beats, as they came to be known, were delving into the dark underbelly of the same beast. Their work looked at the emotional and spiritual costs incurred when a society barrels full steam ahead in search of profit and was the first to suggest that an alternative was possible.

William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, are perhaps the four best known names from that first wave of experimental American writers in the post war period. Seminal works like Junkie by Burroughs, Howl By Gingsberg, and On The Road by Kerouac burst upon American literature with a force equivalent to an atomic bomb and the fall out is still being felt by individuals today,

In 1989 American director Maria Beatty created a documentary movie on Beat poets and their writing. Gang Of Souls is a series of interviews with three generations of American writers from original beats Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and John Giorno; their successors Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, and Diane Di Prima; to today's next wave of Jim Carroll, Henry Rollins, Richard Hell, and Lydia Lunch. (Marianne Faithful is also interviewed, but, as she freely admits, she isn't a poet, she's a lyricist and seems to have been included as a way of showing the extent of the original generation's influence). The original film has now been transferred to DVD for the first time and is being distributed by MVD Video with its original audio re-mastered in 5.1 surround sound to take full advantage of contemporary digital equipment.

Talking head documentaries, ones that consist solely of interviews with individuals, have the potential to be dull as dishwater. Of course the majority of those movies aren't ones that feature people quite as dynamic or exciting as those in this movie. Ms. Beatty has divided the movie up into chapters, and the first chapter allows each writer to briefly introduce themselves to the viewer and tell us a little about themselves and something of the nature of their work. Before each writer makes their first appearance, some highlights of their biography are flashed on the screen for us to read before we try and enter into their worlds.

For that's what happens in this film, we are given glimpses into the world which each of these men and women inhabit. These are not people who write for a living, they live by writing. While some like Ginsberg and Burroughs have achieved international recognition, had some commercial success like Ed Sanders as a pop singer, and Jim Carroll received critical acclaim for his book The Basketball Diaries, they are hardly what you'd call household names.

Yet when you listen to them as they talk about what they do, and you watch and hear them read or recite their work, they come alive like few others. It's especially true when they read their work. A fire seems to be lit within them that illuminates their beings and allows us an unprecedented opportunity to look into their souls. There is something about the written word that has called out to each one of them like a siren's song, and that motivates them to heights of creativity that few others have ever reached.

The irony is that none of them, these people who are so gifted with the use of words, seem able to articulate what it is that makes them who they are. The best that most of them can come up with is that they love words and what they allow them to do. They all freely admit that the idea of being a poet is really quite laughable. What are the chances of being able to live off the proceeds of poetry? What is clear, after listening to them talk, is that for the majority they don't have a choice in the matter; it's a compulsion.

A lot has been said about the original beats and their use of drugs. Burroughs wrote with brutal honesty about the horrors of his attempt to go clean in the novel Junkie, and he spent the last fifty years of his life addicted to opiates of one kind or another. A lot of people have some sort of romantic image of poets and drugs, yet one only has to read the work of Burroughs to know just how much of a fallacy that is, and nothing any of these writers had to say makes drugs sound like an attractive proposition.

What becomes obvious from listening to these people is that they already have found their drug of choice - poetry and writing. They are addicted to the power and the energy that is contained within what they can create by putting one word after another down on paper, and nothing that any chemical can offer them can match it. Yet what happens if the words stop coming? Where do you go to find something that might approximate that same sensation of tapping into the collective unconscious of the human race and recreating it on paper? Drugs might offer some solace for the anguish of not being able to create, but they're not going to do much else.

One of things that Gang Of Souls makes clear is that being a Beat poet is to be different, but it is not a cultivated difference. It's a way of seeing the world and writing about it that you're either born with or you don't have. It's as much an awareness of the world as it is an ability to write. In the case of the Beats that awareness is married to a compulsion to write about what you see and feel. The pictures they draw with their words aren't necessarily pretty ones, because they feel the pain of the world as much as they see or taste its beauty.

Sometimes being able to see beauty is as much a cause for pain as it is a cause for celebration, especially when you see it being ignored and destroyed like is the case in our world. Each of the men and women you meet in Gang Of Souls has their own way of expressing that pain and celebrating that beauty. Being a Beat poet does not mean that there is a style you are following, like a Romantic or a Realist would have adhered to a specific way of creating a poem. What all the people in interviewed in this documentary have in common is the desire, the compulsion, to write about what they see around them with almost brutal honesty.

Gang Of Souls is at the least, an amazing way for those who know little about the American poetic movement known as the Beats to be introduced to some of its leading lights from both the past and the present. Neither William S Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg are with us anymore so there won't be any more opportunities to hear them read or speak in public again. If for no other reason that should make this compulsory viewing for anyone who claims to care about literature.

DVD Review: The Deserter

During the Vietnam war thousands of young American men left their homes and their families behind and crossed the border into Canada to avoid being drafted into the United States army. Since none of them had as yet been conscripted into the army they weren't listed as deserters from the army and went into the books as draft dodgers; a very important distinction in the eyes of the law and the eyes of the public.

To the majority a deserter is a coward who has run away from his responsibilities. They have betrayed their country in a time of war and in most people's minds there can be no worse crime. To the majority there are only two reasons for you to desert your country's army; either you are a coward or you are an enemy of the state. That there could be another option isn't even conceivable to some people.

On the other side of the coin is the person who enlisted in the army because he or she couldn't see any other employment options on the horizon and the army offered a source of income. They also felt that serving their country was a way of doing something of at least some significance. Once in the armed forces they start hearing stories from people who have done tours of duty in Iraq; stories of running over children in tanks, shooting civilians, that over 60% of the Iraqi population don't want them there, and how so many returning soldiers are suffering from emotional and mental problems.
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So if you were a young man like Ryan Johnson and have heard all these stories, and find out that your unit will be shipping out to Iraq in spite of being told you would only be based in the States when you enlisted what would you do? Your options are limited; go to Iraq for no apparent reason other than you are being ordered to; stay in the military and refuse to deploy and go to jail for at least a year; or desert and head to Canada.

I'm sure there are a great many people out there who will say he should either go to Iraq or pay the price for his refusal by going to jail and only a coward would take the third option. Yet think about what it would mean for a second if he decides to go to Canada. He can never come back to the United States and see his family and friends again. His government and a great many of his compatriots will consider him a traitor and a criminal, and if he were ever arrested he could very well face life imprisonment.

Ask yourself if you would be willing to do those things, take those risks, for your beliefs? Wouldn't it be safer just to play the game like you are supposed to and go to Iraq or be led off to jail meekly for refusing to deploy? Doesn't it take just as much courage to make the decision to desert as it does to blindly obey orders? Before answering that question wouldn't it be a good thing to get to know the reasons why a young man like Ryan Johnson would volunteer for the army only to desert?

Big Noise Films has just released their short documentary feature Deserter which introduces us to Ryan and his wife Jen and follows their trek north and east from California to Toronto, Canada after he has made the decision to desert. We first meet Ryan at his mom's house when he is already Absent Without Leave (AWOL). He had enlisted in the armed forces because he didn't know what else to do in order to make a living to support his wife and raise a family. Quite a number of his friends had already done the same thing, although two had joined the navy instead of the army, for the same reasons.

When the assurances that he would only ever be posted Stateside turned out to be a lie and he was told that he was going to be deployed to Iraq he started to find out as much as he could about what it would be like over there. He also considered all the stories he had heard already One friend of his had returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and to celebrate his wife had booked the family at trip to Disney World. After the first day there his friend hadn't been able to leave his hotel room because the crowds and the noise were too much for him and he couldn't cope.

"I don't want to end up like that"

Interspersed through the rest of the movie, as we follow the young couple across the United States into upstate New York, are excerpts of interviews with veterans of the conflict in Iraq telling stories of what they did and experienced there. One man talks about being part of a company that indiscriminately shelled an Iraqi city killing hundreds of people, and another of watching a friend's leg being blown off, and having to try and haul him over the tailgate of their vehicle so he could be taken to safety.

One of the men apologized for having slurred speech, but the medication they had him on for anxiety and depression was causing him difficulties. To a man they all looked like they had seen things that no human being should ever have to experience; hollowed eyed and grim they appear to be still suffering from shock. After seeing these people and listening to their stories is it any wonder that a person who enlisted to serve Stateside balked at being deployed to Iraq.

All the way across America there operates a new Underground Railway, but now instead of helping run away slaves they are helping young Americans escape from having to serve in what they consider an unjust war. Ryan and Jen are passed from safe house to safe house until just before the border they phone the contact they have for Toronto. They've already been coached on how to get through the border crossing, but that doesn't stop them from being nervous; there is the risk that they could check Ryan for outstanding warrants and find out that he is a deserter.

Ryan and Jen have been in Canada for almost three years now, we're not told how they are living - if they are some of the deserters who have applied for refugee status or if they are living underground. In a special feature after the main body of the DVD, the movie makers have included a live video conference call that was conducted at the end of a showing of Deserter with Ryan and Jen. They both appear happy enough, and the interesting thing about Ryan is that he seems so much more self assured now than he did at the beginning of the movie when he was a scared and unsure kid who had just made the decision to leave the United States to come to Canada.

A war like Vietnam, or like Iraq, creates wounds that are invisible. The wounds of distrust and hatred between people who live in the same country. The young people who are being asked to fight these wars might do things that people will not approve of, like desert the army instead of fighting in Iraq. Before you judge them you need to hear their stories. Deserter is a little piece of Ryan Johnson's story, and maybe it will help you understand why he felt like he had to do what he did.

For the sake of the future of your country, don't you think you owe them at least the chance to tell their story?

April 8, 2008

China, Tibet, And The Olympic Games

There are layers of irony surrounding the protests over China's occupation of Tibet and the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing that would make an onion envious. From the signs that read "Free Tibet" to the fact that China was even awarded the Olympic Games in the first place it's hard to know where to even start. What do people have in mind when they demand a free Tibet? What were the International Olympic Committee(IOC) thinking when they awarded a country that depends on slave labour and has one of the world's worst human rights records in the world the Olympic Games?

The Dali Lama has captured the imaginations of people in the West for the past few decades in the way that no other spiritual leader, except maybe the last Pope, has been able to. He is welcomed in nation's capitals the world over, and people of all faiths hang onto his every world as if he has some particular insight into the human condition that everyone else has missed. Supposedly, he is the reincarnation of a previous Dali Lama, and was anointed as such when he was a young child by the hierarchy within the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood.

The royal families of Europe use to have this quaint notion call the Divine Right of Kings, (and Queens). Since they were God's appointed rulers of their country's they were above reproach from lesser beings, like their subjects, and their word was law. Who, after all, could gainsay them if God had put their buts on the throne. That was all very well and good as long as the majority of a country's population remained downtrodden, and dependant on their feudal lord for survival.

Once the economic picture started to change and a middle class of educated and monied people started to emerge, people weren't willing to buy that line anymore. Kings and Queens were reduced to being merely human and lost most of their authority. That doesn't mean there aren't countries in the world that are either theocracies or ruled by someone who considers themselves a divine ruler. Prior to the Chinese invasion year ago, Tibet was one of those countries.

What freedoms are people demanding so vociferously on behalf of Tibetans exactly? The freedom to revert back to being the feudal theocracy they were prior to the Chinese invasion? Where every man, woman, and child who was not part of the priesthood spent their lives in servitude to the monks. Much as in feudal Europe the labour of many was used to sustain a select few who claimed that God had selected them to rule.

While the Church in Europe promised the masses eternal salvation in the afterlife as a reward for their suffering and threatened damnation in hell if they stepped out of line, Tibetans were offered the solace of potential reincarnation as something better off the next time around if they toed the line. They'd only themselves to blame that they were toiling in the fields this time; obviously they hadn't earned enough merit badges in their previous life to be elevated up to the next rung on the ladder of enlightenment.

People need to be asking themselves what would happen in Tibet if the Chinese were to withdraw tomorrow and the Dali Lama found himself reinstated. This is a country that has gone from one form of autocratic rule to another, and has no history of anything remotely resembling representational government. Would political parties miraculously spring up overnight? Who would be responsible for crafting a constitution that would create the Free Tibet, they are calling for? Or would they be satisfied if the country were to return to a feudal theocracy where the population was in thrall to the priesthood?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying any of this as an endorsement of the poor, put upon, misunderstood Chinese government either. This is a government that turned tanks upon its own people twenty years ago, that still routinely puts people in jail and even executes them for being a little too outspoken in their opposition. Yet somehow they expect us to swallow the crap they're spouting about peace, friendship, and harmony and that their decision to send the Olympic Torch on a global relay was to encourage people to build a more harmonious, better tomorrow.

The Olympic Games have been about propaganda since Hitler tried to turn them into a showcase for White supremacy in 1936, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional at best. Why else would countries like the United States who barely spend a cent on social programs, dump millions of dollars into amateur sport, or China, where millions of people live without running water, build an entire network of Olympic facilities from scratch in only eight years? It's just another variation on the age old pissing contest.

When the decision was made to award Beijing the Olympic games do you think that the boys in the IOC gave any consideration to the human rights situation in China? Do you think they cared that all those shiny new facilities would be made with what was virtually slave labour? I doubt those considerations even crossed their minds, and why should it? They've never troubled themselves about trivialities like that in the past; why break with tradition now?

The Chinese government figures it can tighten the screws in Tibet and not worry about anyone boycotting these Olympics because the whole of the industrialized world has been whoring itself to them for the last decade. Just the thought of a billion people waiting to be served has CEO's salivating and frothing at the mouth like a pack of rabid dogs. If they're really lucky they might even be able to go into business with the Chinese and open a factory there. China is every corporations idea of a wet dream; no environmental regulations, no unions, no health and safety standards to worry about maintaining, and best of all, a population in desperate need of employment.

No government will dare and rock that boat or they will find themselves replaced in the next election by someone more "sensitive" to the needs of the business community. It's amazing how the words freedom and human rights can vanish when they no longer serve your purposes. It's all right to fight for human rights in Afghanistan and freedom in Iraq, but not in China, and the Chinese government knows it.

The real irony of this whole business is there are so many reasons for people to be protesting against China being awarded the Olympic Games, and yet they've latched onto a cause which has no meaning. Instead of demonstrating against the horrors of life inside of China; starvation, cultural genocide, slave labour, environmental horrors, and the absence of anything even resembling individual rights, they've taken up the cause of a feudal theocracy.

If it wasn't so sad it would be funny, as it is it's just sort of pathetic. Protesting for a free Tibet has done China a huge favour by diverting attention away from the real problems that exist in that country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Chinese staged it all just for that reason?

April 1, 2008

Book Review: How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger David King Dunaway

I guess it goes without saying that biographies are always going to be written about people who have already gained a certain amount of renown; otherwise nobody would be interested in reading about the person. If we already know about a person because what they have done has gained them sufficient recognition to have a biography written about them, what are we looking for when we read their biography?

There is always going to be an audience for the "tell-all" biography that does its best to diminish its subject matter, but those books are more self-serving exercises on the part of their authors to obtain their own notoriety rather than give a true accounting of a person's life. Although I'm sure that on some level wanting to find out if a person's private face matches their public image will always be part of the motivation for reading a biography, most of us are looking to gain deeper insights into the people who have sparked our interest for one reason or another.

How did they develop into the person deserving of a biography? If they were a musician when did they begin playing and who were their influences for example? Was there some moment in their life which brought about a revelation that set them on the path that would lead them to fame? In order to sate his audiences desire for answers to these sorts of questions, the author of a biography will have to have done extensive research into his subject matter, and be able to convince his or her audience that they know what they are talking about.
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David King Dunaway
received the first Ph.D in American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in folklore, history, and literature. He is the author of a half dozen books of history and biography specializing in the presentation of folklore, literature, and history via broadcasting. He has also created a number of radio broadcasts and documentaries on such topics as Route 66. Across The Tracks: A Route 66 Story is a three part radio show on the influence of this famous cross country highway on America's literary and artistic culture.

However his main focus for the last thirty years has been the documenting the life and work of Pete Seeger. In 1981 he published a preliminary version of a biography of Pete, and this year, a new definitive edition of How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad Of Pete Seeger has been re-issued by Random House Canada through their Villard Books imprint. In the twenty-seven years since the book's original publication Dr. Dunaway has delved deeper into the life of Pete Seeger in order to substantiate what he had in the first edition. He also, to quote Mr. Seeger, "spent many days going over each page"of the original publication with Pete, fixing mistakes that Pete had found in the original book.

The result is an exhaustive documentation of the life of the man who was probably the most significant folk singer of the twentieth century with a career that spanned close to seven decades. He has performed with some of the most famous names in music including Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Muddy Watters, and influenced more people around the world than can probably ever be counted. He was also vilified and blacklisted for being un-American by the Joseph McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts of the fifties; stoned by angry mobs, and received death threats for most of his career because of his belief in the power of music to conduct social change.

Professor Dunaway takes us on an Odyssey that starts with Pete's parents who were both musicians, and his father being a Conscientious Objector in World War One. Although Peter wasn't born until 1919, and missed out on his father's burgeoning radicalization, it was part of the family atmosphere that would shape his future. When he was still an infant his father, Charles Seeger, decided to take Classical music to the people and packed up the family into a ramshackle car/trailer and headed out on the road. They ended up in the Ozark mountains playing classical music for people who in turn played them fiddle tunes.

Charles Seeger was also part of a group of Classical musicians who tried to compose music for the picket line in support of the burgeoning trade union movement in the 1920's, but the world will probably never be ready for the twelve tone protest song that the Composer's Collective insisted on trying to write. But young Pete missed out on most of this activity as from the age of four he was in boarding schools. His parent's marriage had ended when he was quite young and he ended up spending a great deal of time alone.

Aside from his parent's music and his father's radicalism the biggest influence upon young Pete Seeger were the writings of the Canadian naturalist Ernest Thomas Seton who wrote stories about survival in the wilderness based on a romantic and idealized version of Native American life for young boys. Seeger spent long hours alone in the woods relishing the solitude. While most young men of intellectual privilege would sequester themselves from the world's realities in the ivory towers of academia, Seeger refers to himself as growing up in a woodland tower where he learned about surviving in the woods, but little or nothing about the world's bitter realities.

Two things occurred during his time in high school in the thirties that according to Dr. Dunaway were key in young Peter's development; he purchased his first banjo and his father became involved with a group of men trying to find a wider audience for American folk music. It was through this group of people that Pete met Huddie Ledbetter and indirectly Woody Guthrie. In 1940 Woody invited Pete to take a road trip with him to discover America. Long before the Beats, Kerouac, or anybody else they took to the road with a banjo and guitar; playing for food and gas they crossed the country via Route 66.

Anybody who knows anything about Pete Seeger knows of his passion for social justice and his love of folk music from all the corners of the earth, but especially that of his own country. He had a firm belief in the power of music to bring people together and overcome the barriers of race and class. In How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger Dave Dunaway does a masterful job of establishing the roots and showing how those beliefs developed and grew in Seeger. He's not blind to the consequences of the third great influence on Seeger growing up though; the isolation and lack of any real emotional support of family and friends as a child.

Growing up in his "woodland tower" meant that Seeger had no real experience with human nature or what fear and hatred could drive people to. The result was that on occasion he would inadvertently place his wife and children in danger. While trying to get to a concert in Peekskill where he was supposed to perform the car he and his family were travelling in was stoned so badly by an angry mob that the windshields shattered leaving Pete, and his wife and children covered in shards of glass. Less physically dangerous, but just as threatening was his failure to realize the severity of the House Un American Committee Hearings and the consequences of his initial conviction for contempt of Congress would have on his career for the 1960s even though he was eventually acquitted on appeal.

Pete Seeger the solitary singer on stage leads two thousand people in song and in that moment is fulfilling his dream of bringing all people together no matter what their backgrounds through the power of music. But he's still Pete Seeger alone, the young boy with dreams of being a hermit living in the woods. He and his wife have been married more than sixty years and according to Dunaway have a wonderful partnership and marriage but that doesn't stop there being a certain aloofness about Seeger that dates back to those days on as a solitary child.

How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger is a marvellously detailed and fascinating account of both a man and an era. Yet, for all of his accomplishments, and in spite of all of the joy he has brought so many people over the years, I was left with a feeling of sadness that in some ways Pete Seeger never got to experience the gifts he bestowed on us. This is a brilliant and poignant account of one North America's truest treasures.

How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad Of Pete Seeger can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Indigo Books

March 31, 2008

Interview: Stephanie McMillan Creator Of Minimum Security

Last winter I received my first introduction to the people that inhabit Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security when I reviewed her collaborative effort with writer Derrick Jensen As The World Burns: Fifty Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial and found my first cartoon hero since Snoopy - Bunnista. What's not to love; with that cute little X instead of an eye - a memento from having survived an animal testing facility- his cute little arms, his grenade launcher, and his great do it yourself attitude. Bunnista isn't one for sitting around waiting for somebody else to make a statement about things - nope he'll be right there with as many explosives as he can cobble together and let the world know what's what.

After that introduction I wanted more and discovered that an anthology of Stephanie's work had been published under the title of Attitude: Featuring Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security and discovered just how good she was at being a cartoonist and not being afraid to speak her mind. Now it just so happens that I agree with just about everything she has to say about the mess that the world is in and what really needs to be done to even start making amends. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the few places in the mass media where you can be guaranteed reading the truth on a regular basis.

Wanting to learn a little bit more about the person responsible for what is now my favourite comic strip I contacted Stephanie about doing an interview. The upshot was that I sent her a handful of questions and she sent me back the answers that you can read below. In addition to the answers, Stephanie also sent me the following handy biography that will give you all sorts of information about her.
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Stephanie McMillan was born in Fort Lauderdale, FL where she still lives. she earned a BFA in 1987 in film (with a focus on animation) at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her cartoon, Minimum Security, is syndicated online by United Media and appears five times per week at Comics.com
Since 1992, her cartoons have been published in dozens of print and online publications including Z Magazine, Monday Magazine (Canada), Clamor, City Link (South Florida), Megh Barta (Bangladesh), Al Eqtisadiah (Saudi Arabia), Asheville Global Report, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Casseurs de Pub (France), Working for Change, New Standard News, Tribuno del Pueblo, American Libraries, Comic Relief, and Anchorage Press.

Stephanie is the illustrator and co-author, with writer Derrick Jensen, of a new graphic novel about the global environmental crisis, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, (Seven Stories Press, 2007, 225 pages).

A collection of her cartoons, Attitude Presents Minimum Security was published in 2005, edited and with a foreword by Ted Rall. Her work is also included in Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists (2002), as well as in various textbooks and several books in the Opposing Viewpoints series by Gale Publishing Group. Her cartoons have been included in exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York), the San Francisco Comic Art Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC), among other venues.

She is a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, as well as a founding member of Cartoonists With Attitude, a group of ground-breaking social commentary and political cartoonists formed in 2006, many of whom appear in NBM Publishing’s Attitude series of books edited by Ted Rall. You can find out all sort of other things about Stephanie at her web site if you want, but for now here's the interview. See you at the end of the ride.

When did you first start drawing, and was there anything that you remember in particular that got you started

Stephanie: I’ve loved drawing since I was a little kid. I remember bringing drawings home from pre-school and proudly showing them to my dad, who pointed out that hands and feet only have five fingers and toes each, respectively, and not the ten or twenty lines I drew radiating out from each limb.

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to draw cartoons - what is about that medium that appealed to you?

Stephanie: In fourth grade I fell in love with Peanuts and decided to become a cartoonist. Their personalities fascinated me -- the deep melancholy of Charlie Brown, and the defiant independence of Snoopy. I always marvelled at how Schulz was able to create distinct, subtle expressions with such economy of line, how just a couple of dots and curves could effectively convey worry or exasperation. By copying Peanuts at that age, I learned how to draw facial expressions. I think my characters still owe a lot to that early influence.

You have very strong opinions on social/political issues, how did they evolve?

Stephanie: At about age 12 I realized that I’d been too young to understand or participate in the social justice and anti-imperialist movements of the late 1960s. Growing up in the subsequent period of political stagnation, it frustrated me a lot that I’d missed that important and exciting time. I spent many hours as a teenager daydreaming about starting a commune, and thinking about what a fair society would look like. When I was a senior in high school, an older relative gave me the book Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, which made me (unwillingly) think about -- and fear -- the possibility of nuclear war. I started writing about it for the school paper, and going to meetings of liberal anti-nuke groups.

I immediately realized that the actions they recommended – writing letters to local papers and politicians – were a useless waste of time. I didn’t know what else to do though, until outside one of these meetings I met a communist who talked to me about revolution. I was astounded and thrilled – the idea of revolution hadn’t ever occurred to me. I’d thought it was a relic of the long-distant past, and here was someone telling me we could do it too. I jumped right in.

When did you make the decision to combine the two; politics and cartooning?

Stephanie: I went to film school, where I studied animation, because it was very important to my parents that I get a college degree, but already my heart was in political action. I spent my twenties as an activist, and rejected the idea of being an artist. It felt frivolous to draw funny pictures when the revolutionary movement was so small and fragile and needed every ounce of energy we could give it. Instead I took a series of crummy jobs (warehouses, factories, retail shops) to keep me alive so I could do my real work as an organizer. I worked to defend abortion clinics from Operation Rescue, worked against the detention of immigrants, against Star Wars and other cold-war moves by the US, against police brutality, and on a lot of other issues. What I wanted was to help take these struggles out of the realm of loyal opposition, and tie them into a movement that recognized the whole capitalist system as the underlying problem.

After about 15 years of this, the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle revealed that a healthy and vibrant opposition movement had developed, and I felt that it was ethically okay for me to stop being an organizer (other people were doing it far more effectively), and do what I’d always wanted to do, create art as my way of exposing and opposing the system. So I started drawing cartoons.

Initially you started out by doing the single box cartoons, and now you do a recurring strip - how did that progression come about?

Stephanie: At first they were actually multi-panel vertical rectangles, pretty wordy and elaborate. Stylistically I was influenced by the cartoonists I admired: among them Ted Rall, Ruben Bolling, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. After a few years of that, I switched to single-panel political cartoons because I thought they’d be easier to place in papers. Then after the US attacked Iraq, in spite of millions of people all over the world protesting the moves toward war, I became so depressed that I stopped drawing altogether for about nine months.

Eventually I understood that it’s not acceptable to surrender or give up, and I picked it up again in the form of a character-based strip. I chose that form with the idea that it would be more effective to present political points using ongoing characters whom readers might identify with, and stories that would be more compelling to follow in an ongoing way.

You've created four very distinct human characters for Minimum Security , and one very angry rabbit - where did you draw your inspiration for them from? Any friends or family to
be found amongst them in some shape or form?

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Stephanie: They’re all mixed up and combined from parts of myself and people in my life. Nikko, for example, was initially inspired by my brother Nick, whom I love to tease for the TV programs he likes (Nick is much smarter though, and cuter). His sister Kranti and I share a few personality traits (only the positive ones! Ahem. I’m not NEARLY that cranky...and I do wear clothes). I have a good-hearted friend who’s a little silly like Bananabelle, and the name Bananabelle came from my cousin’s pet sheep. Javier’s name came from an activist I’ve admired, who started a community garden. There are even parts of myself in Bunnista... or rather, there would be if I had more guts.

Creating a daily comic strip must be difficult - what's your process for working on the series - writing a whole bunch of strips in advance - like the Celebrity Dodge Ball sequence for instance did you sit down over the space of a few days and power through it, or do you only work a few days in advance of your deadline?

Stephanie: Though it can vary somewhat, in a typical week I write five comics on Monday or Tuesday, draw them on Saturday and color them on Sunday. The hardest part is the writing, and I don’t typically get very far ahead. I often sit at the blank page, agonizing over what should happen and how to possibly make it funny, with a growing dread that the clock’s running out. With longer sequences, I usually have a general sense of what will happen, but don’t actually write them out until the week I draw them. They run the week after they’re finished.

Which comes fist the dialogue or the illustration? Or is it simultaneous?

Stephanie: I write out the scripts first. One of the best bits of advice from an editor I ever got was many years ago, and it was this: write everything that absolutely must be in the cartoon ... then cross out half the words. They turn out much better when I remember to do that.

It's probably safe to say that Minimum Security is socially relevant and politically opinionated - where do you find your inspiration?

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, everywhere. The entire planet and pretty much every form of life on it is being killed right now by industrial capitalism. The need to stop that from happening is tremendously urgent. There’s a lot to be upset about and to address: the imperialist wars and the relentless determination of the US empire to expand, conquer and destroy. The exploitative nature of this global economic system, where a few live on the backs of the many, and suffering is considered normal. The unfathomable levels of pollution that are driving extinct 200 species a day, and making us all sick.

Have there been any cartoonists, artists, or people in general who you would say have influenced your work, and shaped your thinking the most?

Stephanie: Sure, so many. I find artists of many genres very inspiring visually. Some of my favourites are great cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Winsor McCay, Gahan Wilson, and the others I’ve mentioned, political artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz, pop artists like Keith Haring and Yoshitomo Nara, and folk art from Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. I’ve benefited from reading a broad range of thinkers and writers, including Howard Zinn, Chellis Glendinning, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Jerry Mander, Wallace Shawn, Krishnamurti, Vandana Shiva, and Derrick Jensen.

As The World Burns was a collaboration with Derrick Jensen - how did that work. Obviously you supplied the artwork, but did he write the story and dialogue and then you created the illustrations - or did he give your a narration and you created dialogue and visuals that complimented it.

Stephanie: That was a fun, great process! We talked a lot throughout about how the story should go, and he’d send each part to me as he’d write it. He wrote it mostly in the form of dialogue, with some description. I wrote a few parts as well. At first I tried to keep up with drawing each section as I received it, but I quickly lost ground and it took me a few months to finish the drawings after he’d finished the writing.

You don't mince any words in your comics and are usually very direct in your opinions. Have you experienced any problems because of that, and how's the reaction to your strip been in general?

Stephanie: People usually either really like it or really hate it. Many readers have said that it expresses things that they’ve thought about or felt, and that they found it validating or strengthening. That sort of response is actually the reason I draw – I want to help expose the hypocrisy and false claims of the system, and encourage resistance to it.

I also get my share of hate mail and criticism. I’ve even heard about a couple of blogs out there dedicated to ripping Minimum Security apart. Sometimes a right-wing blog will send a flurry of angry messages my way, but they die down pretty quick. I just delete them. Overall, the positive far exceeds the negative. I think many people want more art that challenges the status quo, and they appreciate it when they find it.

What's the future hold for the folk at Minimum Security - any chance of live action or even another full length graphic novel?

Minimum Security is currently on the web site of United Media (Comics.com). If it does well there, and develops enough of a growing audience, then it’s possible that United will syndicate the strip for print as well (currently I self-syndicate it in print, and United syndicates it in electronic form). I would like to do another graphic novel (or more) with these characters, perhaps a sequel to As the World Burns. There are no current plans for animation, but it would be great to do that too. Mainly at this point I’m trying to get it into more print publications.

I would like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer my questions, and I encourage everyone to stop on over to Comics.com and get a fix of Minimum Security five days a week (Monday to Friday). Even better, why not pick up one of her snazzy Bunnista T-shirts or The Little Green Book: Bunnista's Book Of Quotations at the Minimum Security Shop.

Oh for those who were wondering, the title Minimum Security comes from something an inmate said on being released back into society when asked on how it felt to be free again. He replied that he still wasn't free - he was just in minimum security.

March 30, 2008

Book Review: The Silencing Alix Lambert

We all know that there are circumstances where journalists put themselves at risk in order to cover a story. Camera men, reporters, and photo journalists frequently report from war zones and come under the same fire as the soldiers they are reporting on and run the same if not larger risks. For unlike the soldiers they aren't in a position to defend themselves. Yet while it is true that journalists are at risk under fire, it is only on rare occasions that they are deliberately targeted during these situations.

In his introduction to Human Rights Watch's World Report 2008 called "Despots Masquerading As Democrats" Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that silencing the media is one of the ways that a government has of ensuring the denial of the democratic process to their people. Now there are many ways that a government can do this: creating laws that control the media; allowing monopoly ownership of the media in return for favourable coverage; censorship; and either directly killing, or turning a blind eye to the killing of journalists.

It's no coincidence that one of the first things that a government does when it wants to control how it's people think that it seeks to control the mass media. Even in North America - with our so-called free press - we have seen how easy it is for governments to sway public opinion when they are able to manipulate the media properly. Yet this behaviour pales in comparison to countries where journalists are murdered on a regular basis and the government attitude has done nothing to discourage this behaviour.
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In The Silencing, a new book published by Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press, multi-talented artist Alix Lambert has compiled a collection of interviews, essays, and photographs that tell the story of six Russian journalists killed for being good at their jobs. For each of the six individuals Ms. Lambert has visited the murder site and photographed it and interviewed a family member and/or colleague to tell us a little about the person who was murdered.

In her introduction Ms. Lambert says that with the photographs she was trying to represent the sense of absence, what had happened, what might still happen, and that they are about possibility, loss, death, pain passion, yet also about hope. The essays aren't necessarily about the murder, or even what the story was that the person was working on that resulted in their murder - although in some of them that is mentioned. Instead they are about the person and what they meant to the person writing the essay.

In order to give us some idea of the significance behind the murder of these six people, Ms Lambert includes in her introduction an essay by Ann Cooper, former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), about the development of a free press in the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev during the period of glasnost and perestroika in the mid 1980's and how that press actually prevented a coup by extreme Communists from overthrowing Gorbachv in 1991. Yet the problem was that with freedom from state control in the early 1990's meant that there was no longer the state's money paying the way for the press. Wealthy individuals began buying up the major media outlets in Moscow and turning them into mouthpieces for their political and social opinions.

So by the time Putin came to power in 1999 it was easy for him to start reigning in the freedom of the press, because the public no longer had the same faith in their objectivity that they had earlier in the decade. Putin was smart in that he only went after the major television stations and allowed independent print media to exist, knowing full well how little influence they actually carried. Of course in the larger metropolitan centres like Moscow, other means could be brought to bear to exercise control of journalists who would report on matters that might be troubling to certain parties.

Such was the case for five of the six journalists memorialized in The Silencing, the reasons behind the murder of the sixth are unclear and have never been discovered - which gives you some indication as how little was done in terms of investigating any of these crimes. When, as it is in most countries around the world, it is the state's responsibility to ensure justice is carried out, and the murder of journalists are barely investigated, or the guilty parties are somehow able to leave the country, it has a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

What journalist is going to push his or her investigation too hard if they know that it is open season on reporters who uncover anything that somebody may not want revealed? Conversely, what is there restraining a corrupt politician or a crook from having a journalist silenced when he knows little or nothing will be done to investigate the crime, or that it is always possible to buy your way out of jail?

Looking at the photographs of what look to be perfectly ordinary scenes in the lobby of an apartment building, the sidewalk in front of an office, or a train station takes on a whole different perspective when you understand that somebody was murdered there. Shot in black and white, sometimes at day other times at night, they allow your imagination full scope. That darker spot on the cement floor; is it a stain left behind from a puddle of blood? Would the victim have heard his or her assailants footsteps echoing on the floor boards?

Ms. Lambert was right about the sense of loss and absence the images create, especially when they are viewed with the accompanying essays. If those writings had only been details about what had happened, or facts about the story the people had been working on, they might not have had the same impact. The fact that they are tales told by a son or a cousin or a friend and include details about why they had wanted to become journalists, their families, the things that made them laugh, and the things they felt strongest about make the sense of absence feel even stronger.

If there is hope to be found in these images its because their existence means somebody cares to do something about the situation. It means that there are people both inside and outside of Russia who care enough about what these people were doing, and the ideal of free press that they are willing to continue talking about the murders ten, even fourteen years later. Nobody is expecting a solution to be found at this late date for any of the murders. I don't honestly expect anybody thought that the murderers would be caught even the day after the majority of the murders took place. Yet keeping the memory of the people alive reminds people that a free press did exist, and can exist.

On their own, and out of context, I'm not sure what sort of effect the pictures would have on me as they would become just another office block etc. Now however they each serve as memorials to an ideal as well as individuals. Alix Lambert's The Silencing is an awful reminder of how valuable a commodity truth is and the lengths some governments are going to prevent their people from hearing the truth. Read it to remind yourself what the words freedom of the press really mean.

Those wishing to purchase The Silencing can do so directly from Perceval Press and hopefully other on line retailers.

March 29, 2008

The Meaninglessness Of Earth Hour


Stop the presses: Tonight at 8:00 pm EST people, cities, and businesses around the world will be turning off their non-essential electricity for one hour. Earth Hour is the brain child of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) who have co-opeted the idea from an event staged in Sydney Australia last year where 2 million people and 2,000 businesses shut off power for an hour. The idea was to show people easy and effective means that can be taken to save electrical power on a regular basis.

This year the WWF (no not the World Wrestling Federation - see above) have taken the idea global by encouraging people, cities, and businesses to sign an on-line to pledge to take part in a simultaneous world-wide hour of turning out the lights and shutting off the power. To date only about 230,000 people and twenty major cities have pledged to go along with the idea, which isn't even a tenth of the number who took part in last year's event in Sydney. In other words it's looking like this hasn't exactly caught too many people's imaginations.

Now I'm sure that there are going to be people who will say things like the television stations and advertisers aren't going to want lose that hour's worth of prime time audience on a Saturday night, so they're not going to go out of their way to promote it. It will be easy enough to point the finger of blame at some big media conglomerate who doesn't want to lose a penny, for why this event doesn't fly. It's far better to do that than to admit that the whole exercise is pointless and just another sap to people's consciences that won't accomplish dick all.

It's just another joke like Earth Day, and the corporate sponsored pick up a piece of garbage programs that take place every April 23rd. You know those events where everybody gets in their cars and drives to some spot with garbage bags and collects some of the crap that our society produces on a daily basis so that it can be added to overflowing landfill sites, burnt in incinerators, tossed in the town dump, or buried in abandoned mine shafts. Yep, then every one gathers round and has a barbecue consisting of hamburgers made from cattle that acres of rain forest were cut down to make room for. Very ecological.

I hate to break it to everyone but no amount of Earth Days, Earth Hours, Earth Minutes, or even Earth Seconds, is going to change the condition the world is in. If you want to do something constructive for the environment it is going take a commitment far in excess of anything that any of us, and I include myself in that us, are probably willing to take. One only has to consider the environmental impact we each have going grocery shopping each week to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

According to statistics reported by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral if you were to remove the products made with corn, soy, and canola from the supermarket, close to 97% of what's on the shelves would vanish. Soy and corn are not just found in soy milk, tofu or your can of creamed corn from Green Giant these days. Check the ingredient list on the next box of frozen chicken breasts that you buy and you'll notice some interesting additions; soy protein and maybe even corn meal. Both are added to the "chicken breast" as filler to give it more weight. Yet that's only the surface, because a great deal of the packaging that your food comes in has used corn in the manufacturing process.

Now that might sound "ecological" until you start factoring in something else, how much of our agricultural land is now being used to grow what used to be know as feed corn - corn unfit for human consumption but you could feed it to your cattle - that can be processed for manufacturing purposes? In order to make that box your chicken product came in we've wasted land that could have been used to grow food in order to create packaging that has to be disposed of somehow or other.

Then there's the matter of how that packaging was manufactured. How much fresh water had to used for the paper to be pulped, for the inks to be manufactured? How much electrical power was needed for the various stages of the manufacturing process from the cutting down of the tree that supplied the wood that made the paper until the box ended up on the factory floor where the frozen chicken bits were stuffed into it? What happened to all the waste product from the manufacturing process all the way along the chain?

None of that even takes into account the chicken used to make the contents of the package. Skipping over the whole ethical thing about factory farms for now let's just consider chicken shit. That's the real problem with all these factory farms is the disposal of the animal waste product. You get thousands of chickens in one place you're talking about one hell of a lot of chicken shit that you have to get rid off somehow because you can't just have it piling up on the floor. So where does it all go?

All of that just from buying one box of frozen chicken breasts at the supermarket. If you were to take every product you purchase in the grocery store that came pre packaged and start tracing back through the manufacturing process for each part of it, you'd come up with a similar scenario. Even those so called "green" products we all buy are packaged and contribute somewhere along the way to the damage we're inflicting upon the planet.

So things like Earth Hour and Earth Day are meaningless jokes when compared to the damage we inflict upon the world we live in every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every year just by going about our daily business. No one off event once a year will change that. Sure turn your electric power off for an hour tonight if you want, but while your at it why not sit down and look at the real impact of your personal habits on the planet earth.

Oh and everybody, don't rush to turn on your electricity all at once; the power spike could black out North America for hours.

March 27, 2008

Book Review 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa Stephanie Nolen

I'm sure most people have noticed how numbers play this strange trick on the human mind; the higher they get the less meaning they have. I mean when somebody mentions the size of the American government's deficit as being in the trillions of dollars, does anybody really understand what that means? Or if they do why aren't they as upset about it as let's say you or I are about our personal debts that may only amount to a few thousand dollars?

The whole, the higher the number the less it means is especially telling when dealing with casualty figures. While we can get whipped up into a state close to hysteria when we read about the killing of one person, the deaths of millions of people won't cause us to turn a hair. Is it simply a matter of protecting ourselves, in that if we ever let ourselves feel the horror that we should feel from that many deaths we would never stop crying? Or is it because numbers that high are just incomprehensible?

When the death of one person is reported in the news we are usually given details of that person's life. We learn about those left behind to grieve, what they had accomplished to date, and what they have been prevented from accomplishing by their untimely demise. When the death total is from an earthquake or other natural disaster we might be told something about the town or city which has suffered the calamity, and be shown pictures of collapsed buildings, but we won't learn anything about individuals and the grief will stay impersonal.
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Currently there is somewhere between 26 and 30 million people infected with the AIDS virus in the continent of Africa. To give you some idea of what that number means it's the equivalent of saying that nearly the entire population of Canada has AIDS, as we have a population of around 33 million. Those numbers are only estimates, as many governments in Africa are either unable or unwilling to provide an accurate count of the numbers of people with the virus.

A trade paper back edition of Stephanie Nolen's 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa, that was first published last spring by Random House Canada, being released this coming April 15th, is a timely reminder that there are faces and lives that go with each one of those 26 to 30 million people. Each of them have families, had hopes and dreams that are now withering, just as surely as anyone who is killed in a car accident or a house fire.

In the introduction to the book Ms. Nolen explains her rationale behind choosing twenty-eight as the number of people she would profile in the book; one person for roughly every ten million infected with the AIDS virus. She also says in the same introduction that she fears that even the thirty million figure quoted above is a conservative estimate based on how deeply rooted AIDS has become in Africa and how often she witnessed case numbers far exceeding official estimates in areas she visited researching this book.

In 2003 Ms. Nolen convinced her editors at The Globe And Mail, Canada's national newspaper, to allow her to investigate the AIDS pandemic in Africa. She moved to Johannesburg, South Africa and spent four years travelling across the continent and attending international AIDS conferences, as she struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the situation facing Africans of every race, creed, nationality, and social status.

The amount and depth of her research is obvious when you read the introduction to 28; its probably the best written history of AIDS, not only in terms of Africa, but the disease period, that I've ever read. The disease did not spring up overnight among North American homosexuals in the early 1980's as I'm sure many believe. The first known human cases of AIDS can be traced back seventy years ago to Cameroon. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) is a disease found in Chimpanzees, an animal that used to be fairly commonly eaten and hunted in Africa. A virus that is non-lethal in one species, can be death to another, and such was the case with SIV which was not particularly dangerous to chimps, but as HIV has proved incurable in humans.

Scientists figure that it would only have taken ten or twelve incidences of hunters butchering infected chimps and becoming infected themselves for HIV to take root successfully among humans. Once that happened it was only a matter of time before it spread. Thankfully HIV, in spite of any propaganda you might hear to the contrary, is not one of the easily transmitted diseases and requires the transference of bodily fluids in order to have a chance at survival unlike airborne ones like TB, Ebola, influenza or the common cold.

There's no way of knowing for certain how many people were infected with the disease prior to the discovery in the mid 1980's of the test we now have to detect its presence, but Africans were dying of what they called "Slim", a mysterious disease that caused people to waste away since the 1950's. As we learned in North America when people caught HIV from tainted blood products, there are many more ways than sex and drug use to catch the disease. In Africa, mass immunizations where thousands of people were vaccinated with the same needle, looks to be one of the ways AIDS was able to establish a firm grip among the general population.

While Ms. Nolen's skills as a journalist make the introduction invaluable reading, what makes 28 Stories Of AIDS In Africa so compelling are the stories of the twenty-eight people of the title. Some of them will be known to you, like Nelson Mandela, who in 2005 announced to the world that his son had died of AIDS. Since his retirement from the presidency of South Africa has dedicated himself to the fight against the pandemic. Others, like Manuel and Philomena Cossa, a migrant gold miner from Mozambique and his wife, you'll have never heard of, and their stories will break your heart.

From 1967 until 2005 Manuel would spend two years at a time away from home and family working in the gold mines of South Africa. Most of those years were spent working under the iron fist of apartheid for little more then slave wages, but it still meant he brought money home to his family. But in 2005 he came home sick, and both he and his wife have now tested positive for AIDS. They now have no income; because Manuel did not test positive until he was home the mine owners don't have to pay him a disability pension as they would if he had tested positive while on the job. No income means their children have to drop out of school, or can't even start school because they can't afford the ten dollars for school fees.

Alice Kandzanja is a nurse in a hospital in Zomba in southern Malwai that operates at 400% capacity, meaning that each bed has three patients laid out head to foot. She has seen 2,000 of her sister nurses die since the AIDS epidemic hit Malwai. In 2006 Cynthia Leshomo of Botswana won the Miss HIV Stigma-Free pageant by taking her medication as part of her traditional wear portion of the competition. In Botswana, which used to have a lower infant mortality rate than most of Eastern Europe, people didn't get AIDS because it was only a poor person's disease. Yet in the year 2000 37% of pregnant women were HIV positive.

That is the real face of AIDS in Africa, how it effects more than just the person infected, and cripples the futures of so many people. Governments don't have the money to provide free education to their people thanks to the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that have demanded they cut social spending if they want to get any aid money or debt forgiveness. A country like Mozambique doesn't have enough doctors and therefore no way to distribute drugs to people who need them even if they could afford to buy them.

One of the most common questions that Stephanie Nolen reports being asked is how can the world let this happen to us? Even when they do finally cough up money, as the Bush administration admirably has done to the tune of $15 billion dollars over five years, it's a case of too little too late, and with far too many strings attached. How can you insist that money for AIDS prevention not be given to groups that advocate condom use or planned parenthood or stipulate that only expensive patent protected American drugs can be purchased with the money?

From South Africa to Egypt in the north, tens of millions of Africans have been diagnosed with AIDS. Each day there is a good chance that a baby is born somewhere in Africa who is HIV positive, and the numbers continue to grow. Although conditions have improved since the early 1990's when governments in Africa refused to acknowledge AIDS even existed and in 2000 when funding was non existent, the hole that has been dug is so deep that it might take decades just to reach the surface.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa helps you remember that behind the numbers in the headlines, and behind the politician's talks of costs, are human beings who are suffering. I defy anyone to read this book and still feel that governments the world over are doing enough to make a difference.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa is being released as a trade paperback on April 15th/2008 by Random House Canada and can be purchased directly from them or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

March 11, 2008

Book Review: My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith Kevin Smith

I remember a time many years ago when I was directing Samuel Becket's play Waiting For Godot and being surprised at how so many people still didn't understand what it was about. We had been booked to perform it at a private school where the senior class was studying it, and before the show I got up to introduce the play and asked the kids to tell me truthfully how many of them found the play boring. After a little hesitation nearly all of them raised their hands, and I told them, well you're right, it's really boring.

I then told them a little of the play's history, how the first time an English language audience understand the show, really related to it, was when a production of the play was mounted at San Quentin prison for guys serving long term or life sentences. They had immediately understood, and identified with, the way the characters were so desperate to find something, anything, to do that would pass the time waiting for a day to end so they could get onto the next day and do the same thing all over again.

It was Beckett's contention that the majority of us spent our time exactly as his character's did in vain search of something to fill the hours of the day with meaning. Our jobs, our religious beliefs, and everything else that we feel or do all derive from that impetus. In Waiting For Godot he has taken that to absurd lengths with his two characters as they contemplate everything from suicide to violence in an effort to fill that emptiness.
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What, you must be wondering, does Waiting For Godot have to do with Kevin Smith's book, My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith? Isn't it just a collection of entries from the online diary that he keeps where he talks about the his day to day life and all the boring details there in?

Well, yeah, the book is made up of just over a year of entries that were previously published at Silent Bob Speaks.com, and there is day after day of I got up, let the dogs, out went to the can had a shit while doing this on the lap top, went down to the office and answered e-mail until it was time to take the kid to school; stopped and picked up breakfast for the wife at such and such and came home. The entry would continue on in that vain, until he would fall asleep watching episodes of television he'd bought through i-Tunes.

Of course since he is Kevin Smith the film director, he does occasionally lead a more exciting life than most people and periodically there are entries that deal with his life in film. The year or so in question that makes up this book includes an account of his first appearance in a film playing somebody aside from Silent Bob, when he made the movie Catch And Release, describes appearing opposite Bruce Willis for one scene in the latest instalment of the Die Hard franchise, and relates the making of his own movie, Clerks ll.

Oh and he does other stuff, like appearances at comic conventions, radio interviews about Star Wars: The Revenge Of The Sith, fundraisers he and his wife do for their daughter's school, signing shit-loads of merchandise to be sold at his comic stores or through his View Askew company's web site, and going to the Cannes film festival with Clerks ll and receiving an eight minute standing ovation at the conclusion of its showing. You know trivial, boring, day to day stuff that all of us experience.

Of course there has to be something about Jason Mewes in all this too. For those of you from another planet, Jason has played Jay, the long haired, loud mouthed, foul mouthed, moronic, stoner, whose a fixture in the world where Clerks 1 & ll, Mallrats, Dogma and of course Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back take place. Inseparable in real life as they are on screen, Kevin's description of Jason's descent into the hell of addiction, and the years he took to climb out again are probably the most devastatingly honest description of the helplessness one must feel when you feel like you're losing a loved one to drugs.

I think what blew me away the most about that part of the book is not once did I get the feeling that Kevin was making himself out to be anything special or any kind of hero because of what his friend went through. I doubt he would have ever even written anything about it if it weren't for the fact that he felt it important that the truth be told about what happened instead of second hand crap turning up in the tabloids. He doesn't make it out to be more or less than what it was, offering no excuses for Jason, (he does offer us the explanation though that Jason's mom was a junkie, he never knew his father, and his mother had him running drugs when he was nine years old, and later became his major supplier for prescription medicines) and taking none of the credit for Jason's recovery.
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As a former drug abuser myself whose been clean for fourteen years and still has to say in one way or another, I'm not going to use today, I understood the significance of Jason being able to say "I don't need to do that today, and probably not tomorrow either". When Kevin recounts those moments, they aren't famous people from Hollywood, they are two guys from Jersey - close friends who cared deeply enough about each other that the one had the strength to say no when it was needed and the other to go clean.

That's the thing about Kevin Smith and his movies; he is one of us. I don't mean we're all medium height, husky, white guys who wear shorts and high-tops, but that feeling that has permeated all his films from Clerks through to Jersey Girl (Which I thought was a wonderful movie by the way and am proud to say that I own a copy of the DVD) that it could be you or me up on that screen.

Yes, even Dogma. Suspend your disbelief about angels, apostles, and devils walking the earth for a second, and think about the way Bethany feels about life. We've all been there haven't we? Wondering what the fuck, and if this is your idea of a big plan God, well I don't want to play anymore. I know there are plenty of film types out there that have said Smith's movies only appeal to a certain type of people, and Kevin says he understands if people don't share his skewed view of the world, but there's more to his movies than I think he even gives himself credit for.

I was about a third of the way through My Boring Ass Life, still wondering what the hell was so interesting about reading about some guy talking about spending his hours watching DVDs, going to the toilet, and making runs for fast food when it hit me that it was like watching one of his movies. While this book is about the details of his life, the things he does that fill his time, his movies are about what the people in them do fill their time, and that's something we all do.

Hanging out at the mall, playing video games, dealing drugs, dreaming of the opportunity to be something else, might not be what you do to fill the hours of your day, but you have the equivalent in your life. I know I do. You may not want to identify with Randal and Dante at the Quick Stop, or Jay and Silent Bob, but you can't deny that on some level there's a chord of recognition that's being struck as you watch them. You may not be any more like them than you are like Vladimir and Estragon, but that doesn't mean they don't mirror some part of your life.

The candid honesty in Kevin Smith's My Boring Ass Life that everyone refers to isn't the fact that he admits to masturbating or that he and his wife enjoy having sex together. What takes real guts, in this work ethic, always have to be doing something productive society that we live in is his willingness to admit that he's perfectly content to play on line poker for hours on end, curl up and watch movies with his wife and daughter, write a boring ass diary on the web, or sit and talk for hours with a friend.

To some people that might be a "boring ass life" or seen as wasting time, but I think anybody who makes time in his or her day to do puzzles with his child or let a friend know that he's important is making fine use of his time. Randal and Dante might be "losers", and even that's debatable, but Kevin Smith knows what's important in his life and take care of it. His life is anything but boring and nowhere near a waste.

March 8, 2008

DVD Review: Invisible Children

I've started wearing a bracelet on my right wrist. It's not the most comfortable of things, being made from strands of plastic and what looks like wire, and I have to keep adjusting it because it tugs on my skin periodically. It's not even particularly attractive, what with the band being made up of six strands or so of black wire and held together by two pieces of red wire wrapped around it that also serve as slides to adjust the size. I'm constantly aware of it sitting there on my right wrist because of both those things, and while that may not be a desirable characteristic in most jewellery, I think it's an essential component in this case.

Every time the bracelet makes me aware of it's presence, I'm reminded about the story that goes with it; where it comes from, who made it, and why it exists. The bracelet symbolizes an effort being made to help deal with what has been referred to as the most ignored humanitarian crises facing the world today. The mass abduction of children in Northern Uganda by the Lords Resistance Army to serve as conscripts in their twenty year war against the government.

Up until a short while ago cities in Northern Uganda were used to the sight of hundreds of thousands of children "commuting" from the surrounding country side every night to sleep in protected areas like hospitals or bus stations because they were so afraid of being abducted during the night. Sometimes their parents would come with them, some of them were among the nearly million and half children orphaned in Uganda by the AIDS epidemic, and some had escaped from the rebels and had no idea where their parents even lived.
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The government of Uganda has finally got around to setting up displacement centres for these children and their families so they can have permanent protected shelter. These camps don't offer much better conditions than sleeping on the streets as they have become quickly overcrowded and lack proper sanitation facilities. Families have been forced to leave their jobs, schools, and homes behind, and there are no facilities in the camps for them to either receive an education or earn money.

Over the last few years a grass roots campaign has been underway in the United States to try and raise money and awareness in an effort to alleviate the situation. The bitter irony of the Invisible Children campaign is that might have happened if it weren't for the severe problems in Uganda's neighbouring Sudan.

In the spring of 2003 three young film makers left for the Sudan in an attempt to document the ongoing horror story that was the civil war in that country. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole never shot a movie in the Sudan, instead they made the documentary Invisible Children about the plight of the children in Northern Uganda who were being conscripted into the rebel forces and those trying to avoid being kidnapped.

One of the things I found refreshing about this movie was the fact that they have made no attempts to edit out the parts that make them look less than professional. The whole idea of going over to the Sudan to make a documentary comes across as impulsive and you may not question their sincerity, but you sure do question their judgement. Initially they are the subject matter of the movie as they show us their fruitless efforts to "find a story" in the Sudan.

After days spent traipsing through deserted villages and not finding anyone to talk to, they are advised to head over to Uganda where they can at least interview some of the thousands of Sudanese living there in refugee camps. It's on the trip back from one of these camps that they find their story. They are driving home when they are forced to stop because a truck travelling along the same road they are driving on had been attacked by members of the Lords Resistance Army. They are told by their guide that the army has closed the road and everybody will have to stay put because of the worry about rebel activity in the area.

It's another sign of the honesty of their film making that they show their naivety on screen; they had gone into an area without knowing that a civil war had been raging for the last fifteen years. Since they have to stay put for a while they begin to ask questions about the war and who the rebels are. They supply some good solid history at this point in the documentary that explains how the rebellion started and it quickly becomes clear that the person behind it is very dangerous. Although Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, claims to be trying to fight for rights of the local tribes it is their children his troops abduct and kill, and their food and supplies they steal.

Kony uses a mixture of spiritualism and violence to keep his followers in line, claiming to want to take over the country and run it according to the laws of the ten commandments - although as he's able to ignore the "thou shalt not kill" doctrine and young girls abducted are turned into sex slaves his sincerity about that is debatable. Recent news - as of this month - shows that progress is finally being made in peace talks, but the real sticking point is what to do about the former rebel soldiers who want to live in Uganda. Even more horrifying is the thought of what's to be done about the children who have been brainwashed and turned into killers once a peace plan goes into effect. Who will take responsibility for "deprogramming" children who can field strip an AK47 but can't read or write?
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I'm getting ahead of the movie here, it's hard not to get caught up in this story once you start writing about it; it's just so damned heart rending. Anyway, back to the movie where our three young film makers are now witnessing the phenomenon that was a fact of life in Ugandan cities at the time. The nightly commute of hundreds of thousands of children from outlying areas into the city core seeking shelter from the rebel forces that sneak into their villages at night to pressgang them into the army.

They show us footage of children lying stacked together like chords of wood on the verandas of buildings through out the town. They discover that six boys have created a shelter for themselves in a concrete cellar underneath the hospital and they follow them down into it and watch them make preparations for the night. That first involves having to mop up all the water that's leaked in during the day if it has rained and then laying out thin mats on top of the damp concrete. A couple of the boys had managed to escape from the rebels after being abducted, and they talk about how they were forced to watch other children killed as a warning as to what would happen if you tried to escape.

The movie continues along in the same rough, semi-professional style that it started with, but that makes it even more effective. These three young men find the right people to talk to who can explain the situation properly; an American aid worker, a Ugandan member of parliament who has been one of the few political voices in the country talking about the plight of the children, and Ugandan journalists who have been reporting on the story of the war and the children since the beginning.

What makes the movie the most effective is their passion for telling the story, and the fact that nobody is the subject of a documentary, everybody is treated like a person. They make no secret about how they feel and how much they are moved by the people's willingness to keep on trying to have a life as normal as possible. The six young boys in their concrete bunker doing homework by the light of a single paraffin light, and rousing themselves at first light so they can get to their school.

Their are moments in this movie that will rip your heart out, and if you don't cry while watching it than I'll question whether or not you have a heart at all. If listening to a fourteen year old boy say he'd rather be dead right now instead of living the life he is living, and then bursting into tears at the thought of his dead brother, killed by the rebels, doesn't make you want to know what you can do to help than probably nothing will. It certainly inspired these the three young film makers.

The special features of the DVD Invisible Children tell you about the grassroots organization Invisible Children that grew out of the movie and lets you know how you can help. In fact they make it easy, they've even included a second copy of the DVD in the package so you can give it to a friend so they can find out about the story. The enclosed pamphlet lets you know about various ways you can either spread the word; hold a screening of the movie for friends or the public - they'll even send you promotional material so you can let people know about the screening.

There are programs for schools to get involved in to help raise money for schools in Uganda. Money raised through the sale of the DVD goes into funding mentoring programs where adults in Uganda are matched up with children to help them deal with everything from life issues to tutoring them in their school work. Than there's the bracelet I'm wearing around my wrist. The Bracelet Campaign is a cottage industry where individuals in the resettlement camps are given the raw materials to make these bracelets that are then sold in North America.

Not only are the bracelets used for fund-raising purposes, but they provide a small income to those who make them. The business of making the bracelets is also being used as a teaching model for business and financial planning practices for everyone involved. The bracelets are packaged with an accompanying DVD that tells the story of an individual child and each colour represents a different child's story. My red bracelets came with a DVD about Emmy. a fourteen year old boy who is the fourth of five children, each from a different father. One father was killed in combat, one died a political prisoner, and Emmy's father died of AIDS.

For so many years the existence of the child soldiers has been denied by everyone except those who live in the villages affected by the abductions during the war. The rebels have denied using them and the government forces have denied fighting against them. The first step in helping these children is letting the world know of their plight. With the movie Invisible Children Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began the process, and they continue to do so with the Invisible Children Campaign.

At the end of the movie they ask if you can spare any one of three things that will enable you to help out. Your time to tell others the story, your talent to come up with a way of spreading the word to lots of people, or your money to help with programming. With the chance at peace on the horizon, it means there is a horrendous amount of work to be done. Over a million people will have to be repatriated back to their homes from the displacement camps, and who knows how many child soldiers will have to be integrated back into society. The story is ongoing, and the best way to help shape future chapters is to ensure that people know about it... that there are no more Invisible Children.

You can find out how to help by going to the Invisible Children web site at Invisible Children.com.

March 7, 2008

DVD Review: Helen Mirren At The BBC

Turn on the television on any given night in North America or go to a movie theatre, and if you were to believe what you saw was a fair sampling of the our population, you'd think that around 80% of our population was between the ages of twenty and forty-five and vapidly attractive. That figure rises even higher if you only concentrate on the female actors (the word actress is a diminutive that means lessor actor) as you rarely catch sight of a woman over the age of fifty doing anything other than cleaning up after one of today's beautiful losers.

In moments of idle speculation I wonder sometimes if there's not only really ten or twenty actors of each gender that are just given a variety of wigs to wear playing all the rolls; they all look so interchangeable. I know that's a gross exaggeration, but with the way casting directors and producers cast shows and movies by type instead of by acting ability there is an awful tendency for the "look" of an actor - especially in the case of a woman - to matter far more than anything as mundane as artistry.

Male actors seem to have a little more leeway, as nobody seems to find the idea of a sixty something guy with a twenty something girl all that unusual; it's the reverse you'll see as often as hen's teeth. It's not as if there haven't been roles written for women over the more than two millennia that the performance arts have existed, they just never seem to be performed on this side of the ocean.
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What makes this trend so terribly disappointing is the enormous amount of talent that is being ignored. Thankfully for those of us who want to see talented woman perform the miracle of modern technology rides to our rescue by giving us access to great performances from other countries, specifically England, where the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been going about the business of producing some of the best classical and contemporary theatre as television for nearly its entire existence.

Warner Brothers Hove Video has taken advantage of that fact, and in tandem with the BBC has been presenting some wonderful packages of various productions, and even more excitingly packages featuring highlights from a single performers work with the BBC. Helen Mirren has risen to stardom in North American in recent years through her performances in movies like The Queen and Calendar Girls and re-broadcasts of her long running television show Prime Suspect.

While her performances in those productions gives us an idea of her scope as an actor, watching the nine different productions included in the box set Helen Mirren At The BBC make you realize the true depth of her abilities as an actor. These productions were filmed over an eight year period from 1974 to 1982 and gives us an amazing opportunity to not only see her performing everything from the classics - Thomas Middleton's bloody Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, William Wycherley's bawdy Restoration sex comedy The Country Wife and Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart to the challenges offered by contemporary scripts like Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills and Soft Targets by Stephen Poliakoff.

While I was unfamiliar with a few of the titles, some of them having been written specifically for the BBC, or like J.M. Barrie's The Little Minister a less well known work by a famous author, the ones I did recognize made me wonder at the range that was being demanded of her as an actor. You couldn't find two more different worlds than the ones presented in The Changeling and The Country Wife yet here she was at an early stage in her career, 1974 and 1977 respectively, appearing in both and giving riveting performances.

But somehow the difficulties faced by her as an actor in those two productions paled to what she was called upon to do in her performance in Blue Remembered Hills, where she and her fellow cast members are dressed as, and play the rolls of children. It is a satirical look at how people idealize the past, especially childhood, that wouldn't work if the adult actors weren't able to give convincing performances as children. There is something almost frightening about watching a child's mannerisms and behaviours being performed with the sincerity and realism that Mirren brought to her role
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Playing an unsympathetic character from history is probably one of the most difficult tasks an actor ever faces, especially if they want to be true to their character. You can't let your personal feelings about who or what this person is or did come through, but must show them and their situation as honestly and clearly as possible. In Mirren's 1975 performance in Caesar and Claretta of Claretta, Mussolini's mistress on the last days of their lives we see her do a marvellous job that. She had been his mistress for ten years by the time they were captured by the Italian underground while trying to escape, and although she was offered her freedom Claretta chose to die with her lover.

That Mirren is able to make us see the depth of her character's love for a person history considers one of the villains of the twentieth century is remarkable as she is able to overcome our abhorrence for the object of her affection to the extent that we believe her feelings. We may not see what she finds so attractive in Mussolini, but there can be no doubting the depth of her character's devotion to him.

Also included along with the nine performances are two interviews conducted with Helen, one is from 1975 when she was a new rising star, while the other is newly recorded for this box set, and features her talking about these performances and her early career in general. Obviously the material in this set was not shot with modern DVD equipment in mind, but the sound is perfectly adequate and the pictures are clear. It's interesting to see the difference in quality though when they make the switch from shooting in studio on video, to on location shooting with film. Film seems to have a substantially greater depth of field than video, and the image quality of both Blue Remembered Hills and Soft Targets is far superior to those shot on Video.

Whether it was shot in video or film though is irrelevant to the quality of the performances on display in this collection. (Not just by Helen Mirren either - look for a spectacular performance from Ian Holm in Soft Targets and Prunella Scales', of Fawlty Towers fame, appearance in The Apple Cart) From the dark depths of depravity in the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, the farce of The Country Wife, to the melancholy of her character Celia in Soft Targets each performance Helen Mirren gives is as memorable as anything she's done in recent years.

In Helen Mirren At The BBC we are able to watch an actor perform in a wide variety of challenging and interesting roles, with spectacular results. It is not only a pleasure to watch her performances because they are brilliant, it's also nice to see a woman being given the same opportunities that are normally only given to men on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. If you liked Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, l & ll, you will love this set.

Helen Mirren At The BBC is available either directly from Warner Brothers Home Video's BBC America Shop or other on line retailers.

Interview: Chad Stokes Urmston Of State Radio

At the beginning of February I reviewed a DVD, Dispatch Zimbabwe: Live At Madison Square Garden, and it was my introduction to the three young men who had been involved with the band Dispatch. As those folk who were loyal followers of the group know the individuals had gone their separate ways back in 2006, and this was the first time they had played together since then.

As I had been really impressed by what I had seen on this DVD, I was interested in seeing what each of theme were doing "post-Dispatch". Chad Stokes Urmston had played guitar and some bass for Dispatch and is now fronting his own trio, State Radio. I contacted their management team and asked if I could get a review copy of their new disc Year Of The Crow and maybe talk with Chad.

Thanks to State Radio's management people and Chad himself all the above was able to happen. It should have been easy, I was supposed to phone Chad Wednesday at 3:30 in the afternoon, and I got him at the second number I was given to contact him at. Unfortunately the connection wasn't the best and we kept having to start over again as we'd get cut off periodically. In spite of the technological difficulties, we managed to get through the questions I had for him, and have a pretty cool conversation too.
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What I really enjoyed about our conversation was that it was obvious he genuinely believed in what he sang about, and that he is that person who sings with compassion, anger, sadness, and hope about the world. It might sound like a cliche, but it was a pleasure to spend time with him, and he felt like the type of person who I would have a good time hanging out with.

There was something we needed to clarify before we really got underway. In the Dispatch information I had received with the DVD listed Chad last name as Urnston, but with all the PR stuff I received with the State Radio Disc his last name was given as Stokes. So the first question I asked was simply what's your name

Chad: "My mIddle name is Stokes and I use that now because it's easier for people to say and handle then Urmston - but I still consider my name to be Chad Urmston.

Can you give me some biographical detail - I don't know much about you - Your background where you grew up. There was something about growing up in a progressive hockey playing family

Chad: (laughs) I grew up on a farm in Sherborn Massachusetts. - chicken, pigs, sheep, and grew up hearing Hendrix and Hair - 60 - 70s music. But the biggest influence was this place called the Peace Abbey, run by a man named Lewis Randa, dedicated to teaching people about peace and those people who advocated peace - Mohammed Ali,John Lennon, Mother Teresa have all visited it at one time or another.. In 1999 I took part in this march where people from the Peace Abby hauled a one ton grave stone - on a caisson, (a cart specially designed for the grave stone) - for the unknown civilian killed in war, all the way to Arlington Viginia.

I didn't do the whole thing, but it was really wonderful experience. We'd sleep in fields along the way, or sometimes people would see what we were doing and appreciate it and invite us to spend the night with them. When we got there, the night before we camped out near the Lincoln Memorial - a buddy and me went for a swim in the reflecting pool that night (laughs). We thought we might get arrested and handcuffed trying to take the caisson into Arlington cematary, so my friend and I greased our wrists. We never did get handcuffed - the cop stopped the procession on the bridge and took the caisson away.

What's really cool is that its been all over the world now. I think it went to the French embassy after the cops took it, and I know its been to Viet Nam and Britain. (There are two stones, one is permanently set up in Sherborne Mass. and the other tours the world to help honour the memory of civilians killed in wars all over the world.)

I also did a year of school at N.Y.U. in New York City, and it was an eye-opening experience as there was always some sort of action taking place. I took part in some of them and it was exciting, a feeling of doing something that was not just about you.

I think I read something about you playing trombone when you were in high school or middle school, was that your first instrument - where did the idea of doing music as a means of expressing yourself come from...?

Chad: I've always loved music, but I don't know if I ever thought of it as a career or anything like that right away, or when I first started playing. My sister got a guitar when I was twelve or thirteen and I would steal it from her and start playing. You know classic rock songs, that sort of thing. The first time I wrote a song was I set music to a poem my mother had written when she was in her twenties, and that was the first time I had the idea that it was something I was interested in doing. I never really planned it, it was something that just happened, and I kept doing it.

When I got to University I actually first joined Pete's (Pete- Bass and guitar player for Dispatch) band as a trombone player. Obviously that changed, Brad joined us (Me: And the rest is history) (laughs) But I played trombone all the way through high-school, and it was fun. I was part of a group who were seen as pretty odd - you know the low brass section - and we had a great time.

Obviously your stay in Zimbabwe had a huge impact on you...How did you end up in Zimbabwe? Do you think it changed you, or did it more help provide you with a focus for what you wanted to do?

Chad: I had a friend who lived in the town next door whose father was a Pastor, and they had spent some time in Zimbabwe when he was younger, and his family knew people over there. At the end of high school I didn't want to go off to University right away. It was pretty much an impulsive decision to go - we could stay with friends of his family over there and it sounded like a good idea

When was that?

Chad: That was in 1994

Were you doing anything specific - like you weren't with any organization or group or anything?

Chuck: No we just went over by ourselves and were staying with the people my friend's family already knew. For about the first month we would just walk around - go into the townships and meet people. Sometimes I would take my guitar along - you know things like that. But after that I started looking around for things that I could do that was more constructive. It became the choice between just hanging out or actually making a contribution, asking yourself what I can do? It was still informal, but I got involved and taught some school, played soccer, and got to know the people.

Being there took me out of myself. I saw all that these people had to deal with; AIDS, poverty, and it wasn't nearly so bad then as it is now either. I was really impressed by the fact that in spite of their world being filled with problems all the people I met had a generosity of spirit that really stood out, a refusal to be brought down by circumstances.

It made me want to do something with myself that was respectful of people like that, worthwhile or that could make a difference.

Have you been back since

Chad: "No, but I really want to. I made a really good friend over there, Ellias and I found out that his son was really badly hurt - stabbed in the side of the head over a bag of sugar - that's how desperate things are right now I guess - and he's getting better, but still having trouble with one side of his body. I'd really like to see them and see how their doing

Let's get back to music again. You wrote songs for both Dispatch and now State Radio - What do you see as the differences between the two experiences - both in the actual process and any changes in direction your focus might have undergone.

Chad "Some bits of music can't be controlled, you just write what comes. When I was with Dispatch I would write songs, and than pick the ones that I thought would work for the band. I pretty much do the same thing now, select the stuff that I think will work best for Chuck and Mad Dog. I probably keep in mind what they bring to the band when I'm writing now, knowing that I'm playing with them.

I also think there's less of a filtering process now then there was in the later days of Dispatch, and less censoring of political content. With Dispatch there were three of writing songs and it was pretty free flowing that way, but it also started to make things difficult towards the end. You have three very creative people working, each of us writing material that we want to play - it can't help but create tension. We were together for eight years...

That's a long time, and with three creative people there's bound to be lots of growth, and a desire to do things ... explore your own ideas. It seems like you guys had the brains to know that and were right to let it end

Chad: "It was still hard..."

Where do you find yourself looking for inspiration for material - or do things just sort of jump out at you from the headlines and you say I've got to write a song about that.

Chad: "From everywhere really, the Internet, other Artists. Sometimes you go out and you've had a conversation in a bar or something and a topic comes up, and you go home and start looking it up on the Internet and you find out all this information on a subject, an it will inspire you to want to write about it. Mainly though it's what going on around me, or things that I"m thinking about. Like I said earlier you can't really control the music and it's an ongoing process of absorbing and creating based on all of what's around you."

How do you see the interrelationship between your music and your lyrics - do you try and create a sound that will reflect the feelings being expressed in the lyric?

Chad: "What I'm usually trying to do is marry the melodies to the words, so that they work well that way. I'm trying to keep the diction as natural as possible in the songs, obviously you have to play with it sometimes so that everything works, but I really want them to compliment each other. The music is really a natural extension of the lyric."

Are there any people in particular that have inspired you, shaped the way you think, or influenced your outlook on the world?

Chad: Well John Lennon, and Thoreau - Walden was really important to me, and the existentialists. I really like what Rage Against The Machine talk about with their idea of living what you what you sing.

Not just talking but doing?

Chad: "Yeah, taking part in the world not just commenting on it"

What do you hope to accomplish - stupid question in some ways I know, but a number of songs on Year Of The Crow refers to specific issues.

Chad: "Well I hope people like the music obviously, but I'd like it to encourage thoughtfulness, and hope that they don't just accept things at face value. A lot of our material decries against what we see as the corruption of authority. How those in power are abusing it and the problems that's causing. So I'd like people to think about that."

I wanted to ask about the title of the CD Year Of The Crow Does the crow have any special meaning for you

Chad: "Well part of it is the associations with Native Americans. I've always been fascinated with Indians since I was a kid. You know the usual stuff, building a teepee and sleeping out in it, but I've also done lots of reading about what's been done to them over the years, and their current situation. I know the Crow is an important figure in some American Indian stories, and so that's one reason, to make that reference.

The Crow is the harsh voice of truth in some stories

Chad: "Yeah and that's part of it too. Also it's the idea of the underdogs, those who aren't in authority coming into their own."

The ravens coming home to roost?

Chad: "Yeah, definitely"

The song "Fight No More" on Year Of The Crow is about the former Nez Pearce Chief, Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountain) What was is about his story in particular that attracted you to it?

Chad: "When I started reading about American Indians, at first all I read about were the Sioux. People like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and it was all about warriors and fighting. Chief Joseph was the first American Indian I read about who talked about peace, and even though he was resisting, he tried to preserve his people by getting them away from war and not fighting.

State Radio is about to start a tour of Europe later this month, is this the first time over there for you

Chad: "No we've been over a few times, we recorded Year Of The Crow in England (Me: "Yeah right, I'd forgotten that - I guess you have to go over to Europe to record there) Yeah, and we have played in Germany before this, at some big festivals with bands like Pearl Jam."

How do you get gigs like that without a label

Chad: "Well our distributor, Network, are really good about that, and get us into the line ups for the big festivals in Europe, and our management company does a lot of that as well."

Do you like playing over in Europe

Chad: "It's great, we get a lot of press and people are really up for the shows and always having a great time. It's funny you know I bet you we're on the radio more in Germany than we are over here. We're going to France for the first time on this tour, so we're looking forward to that."

Well, I should let you go, I know you've got a gig tonight. Thanks for this and good luck

Chad: "It was good talking to you".

In the end what was supposed to have been a ten or fifteen minute conversation lasted about forty-five minutes. Part of that was our problems with the phone, but also part of it was I had to keep stopping myself from just yaking with him like he was a friend, and exchanging stories about similar experiences. I'm usually able to keep the Interviewer - Interviewee barrier in place no matter what, but I found that almost impossible to maintain while talking with Chad.

Perhaps it was because we have a lot of the same interests in common and it was just nice to talk to someone of like mind, but I also think that it's because of what I said earlier about him being exactly like he comes across in his music. It was really nice to talk with someone who is so genuine in his beliefs and open about his feelings.

I hope I get the chance to talk with Chad Stokes Urmston again.

March 4, 2008

Book Review: Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008

I've got a question for you; what are human rights? You probably hear or read the phrase at least once a day in the media, but have you ever stopped to think what they should entail? Don't worry if you haven't because I'd lay odds you're not alone. The phrase is bandied about so much these days that if it ever had an agreed upon meaning in the eyes of the general public it's been long forgotten.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948 has 30 articles, most of which will probably sound familiar to any of us who live in countries which have a Bill of Rights or the equivalent. You know the usual stuff - everybody will be treated the same regardless of race, colour, sex, religion creed, no one will be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment, everyone is entitled to protection under the law and nobody is above the law, everybody has the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion.

Over the years its of course been updated and some specifics have been added like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course that these addendum were needed goes to show just how well people were complying with the original declaration. If countries had been treating people equally regardless of sex there would have been no need for any convention dealing specifically with violence against women.
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That's the thing isn't it, everybody talks a good game, our governments in the West especially, but there's probably not a government in the world that's not guilty of a violation of somebody's human rights. Take a look at the partial listing of articles I've mentioned above, and you'll notice that the United States, who have one of the most comprehensive Bill Of Rights of any country, has contravened every single article listed.

Of course they aren't the only ones; according to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) there's a distressingly huge number of countries all over the world making a mockery of the declaration according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2008, their annual report on how well countries around the world are abiding by the statues put forward more then fifty years ago.

After my first glance through the volume I couldn't decide which was the more depressing thought; the fact that it exists at all, that it is over 560 pages in length, or that it doesn't list all the countries or all the categories where there were infringements of Human Rights around the world in the year 2007. I think it's the last one that bothers me the most, especially when the writers say that they really have no way of knowing how much they miss, because there aren't many countries that are going to give you access to documentation proving they've been violating the rights of their population.

Before you ask, who the heck are Human Rights Watch or assume they are just another plot to discredit the U.S., there's a couple things you should know about them. They describe themselves as being a Non Government Organization (NGO) that refuses funding from any politically affiliated body or government, and are dependant on the donations of private citizens and foundations for finances. They rely on first hand accounts from people on the ground in countries where abuses are taking place as their primary source of information, but they will never base a report on information that can not be verified by one of their own field people.

Initially founded in 1978, and called Helsinki Watch for the location of it's head office, it started off with only two divisions Europe and Central Asia. Currently it has expanded to six geographic divisions so it now includes, Africa, the Americas, all of Asia, and the Middle East, and added three thematic divisions, arms, children's rights, and women's rights. Other permanent divisions include a country's treatment of refugees and immigrants and how that stacks up against U.N. declarations on their treatment; HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; International Justice; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights; Arms; and Business and Human Rights.

Let me tell you about the litmus test that I use for organizations like this; when it comes to the Middle East do they ignore transgressions on the part of the Palestinian authority and only criticize Israel, or do they apply the same standards to both sides? Far too many so called rights groups are all prepared to stomp one side in the dispute and allow the other to literally get away with murder. Well not these guys, they hold both sides accountable for any and all violations of a groups Human Rights. So while they criticize Israel for firing upon civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, they hold Hamas to account for firing rockets and mortars into civilian areas in Tel Aviv, for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, and for the unlawful detention of an Israeli soldier in clear contravention of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

After reading that, I felt a lot more comfortable about the fact that this is an organization without an agenda aside from doing their best to make countries accountable for their treatment of their citizens. They don't except any excuses from anybody, be it George Bush and company or Putin and his cronies in Russia. From Albania to Zimbabwe if you're government has abused the rights of it's people HRW are going to let the world know about it whether you or the world want to know.

That's the rub isn't it; HRW may be without an agenda, but the rest of the world is nowhere near as unbiased. Governments the world over will turn a blind eye to violations conducted by the countries that do them favours, while condemning the exact same activities in others. Human rights for some but not for others is a cynical and gross violation of the spirit of original declaration, and also happens to be the breech that most countries have in common. Running almost neck and neck for infamy are the number of countries who try to pass themselves off as democracies while denying their people the rights that ensure democratic governments.

While international human rights law says that each citizen is entitled to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through a freely elected representative, and to vote in genuine and periodic election with full and equal suffrage, in a secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate, it also guarantees the societal elements that are essential for a true democracy. A press that is independent of the government, rights that defend the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law as much as private citizens.

What kind of democratic election is it when only one party runs for power, or when the press only reports what the government allows, when people aren't allowed to attend political rallies unless approved by the government, when there is no free and open debate on the issues, and there is nothing in the constitution guaranteeing an arms length body monitoring elections? In his introduction to World Report 2008, "Despots Masquerading as Democrats", Executive Director of HRW Kenneth Roth, cites these examples to point out the importance and necessity for human rights monitoring.

Anybody can and does call themselves a democrat, and even worse there are always those in the international community who seem willing to endorse them for their own convenience. It's ironic isn't it that the supposed ideal form of government, the one so many wars are fought to protect, has never been internationally codified? You don't think it's because half the world's governments who currently claim to be democratic would be revealed as just the opposite, or that it's not in best interests of countries like the United States and Russia to have their various friends proven to be just as despotic as their enemies? No it couldn't be that, nobody is that cynical or hypocritical are they?

So the only meter we have to measure a government's true democracy is their willingness to ensure the protection of human rights no matter what it costs them in terms of their ability to retain power. There used to be a rather common saying along the lines that a man was judged by the company he keeps. Perhaps a variation along the lines of: a government should be judged by how it keeps its people, would be more appropriate for today's world.

With disinformation raised to an art form, and government influence over media reaching a zenith in all parts of the world, a non-aligned body monitoring how people are treated based on the principals espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only hope we have of getting a true picture of the health of democracy in the world. Human Rights Watch makes a very good case for being that body through their willingness to judge each and every country against the same measure; their adherence to the Declaration.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008is this years status report on the health of democracy in the world, and it doesn't look good. While there have been some positive signs in a few countries, indications are that overall the patient is in danger of expiring due to extreme cynicism and complications caused by opportunistic despots. That's not a very good prognosis for the future.

February 29, 2008

Book Review: Visions For The Future: Celebrating Young Native American Artists

There's a man who I know, and I was privileged enough to call him friend during the time I knew him well, who lives in two worlds. In one he carries a brief case and holds a college degree in business. He has standing in court rooms across the country even though he's not a lawyer, and can argue law and cite precedents that date back to the 18th century. He has to because of the other world he inhabits, that of being a Native American man living in the twenty-first century.

He has carried the flag of his nation in Grand Entries at Pow Wows and into battle on the carpets of the court rooms where words are what he pulls from his quiver to fight the never ending battle for survival his people have fought for more then five hundred years. He's not alone in this battle, there are numerous men and women across North America who are on this War Path these days. Briefcase warriors who refuse to roll over and be good Indians and accept the indignities that continue to be heaped on the heads of their people.

In the 1970's the burgeoning Native American rights movement was centred around the very public and flamboyant activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM). While AIM may have garnered the majority of the public's and media's attention, that also brought them to the attention of the FBI. If J. Edgar Hoover decided you were a threat to America, you could pretty much count on never having a moments peace, and being hounded relentlessly until you were dead or in jail. By the end of the 70's AIM's effectiveness as a force for Native rights was depleted, but they hadn't been alone, and other groups aside from them had formed around the same time.
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TheNative American Rights Fund (NARF) was formed in 1970 through a grant from the Ford Foundation by the California Indian Legal Services. NARF is a non-profit law firm who represent the needs of Natives in court who otherwise would not have access to legal representation. Their brief is simple - to protect the rights of Native people everywhere, and see that justice is done in the courts as much and whenever possible.

While you won't see them in courts over casinos, rightly believing they have enough money to take care of themselves, they are the voice for all the tribes across America who don't have that new cash crop. For instance they have been in litigation for ten years with the Bureau Of Indian Affairs (BIA) over the possible mismanagement of over 500,000 Native American's trust funds by the Bureau and its agents. But it's not just the law they see as their responsibility, they, like the other groups who came of age during the 1970's fighting for a Native Renaissance, knew how important it was to not only preserve their rights, but also their culture.

That doesn't mean they believe they should return to hunting buffalo and living in Tee Pees, those ways are irrevocably lost. It means holding on to the essential elements that define them as a people and applying them in the twenty-first century. The arts have always been a vehicle for a people to express their culture and Natives have been no exception. The trick is though to bring the arts into the twenty-first century.

Visions For The Furture: A Celbration Of Young Native American Artists published by Fulcrum Publishing is a record of the first annual exhibit of works by young Native Artists sponsored by NARF. The purpose of the Visions For The Future shows is to not only encourage the work of Native artists aged eighteen to thirty-five, but to act as a bridge between the generation of Natives who began the fight for sovereignty and rights in the 1970's and the young people who weren't even alive during that time.

To that end the artists were asked to submit works that reflected NARF's focus on the modern day battles that face Native Americans. Education, sovereignty, natural resources, civil rights, land claims, and ensuring the continuation of cultural and spiritual traditions in the twenty-first century. By having them express those themes based on what they see around them, the hope was they would be able to take the first steps in changing people's view of just who Native Americans are today and to help people understand the realities facing them.

Today's young natives are just a liable to be involved with hip-hop and house music, make use of the Internet, and skateboard as their European, Asian and African contemporaries. So you wouldn't really expect them to be doing beading or making pottery like their great-grandparents did, any more than you'd expect a young Italian artist to be painting like De Vinci or Michelangelo. "When a person learns that I am an artist" says Bunky Echo-Hawk, "predictably they ask if I do beadwork or make pottery." Historical or replicated art, as he refers to it, has nothing to do with his world as a young Native American today, nor any of the other artists whose work appears in this book.

Cultural and spiritual events like Pow Wows are still a part of their lives of course, but so are toxic waste dumps on reserves, addictions, and poverty. In an essay he contributed to this book called "Bullets In The Chest, Arrows In The Back" - a reference to the war chiefs of old who rode in the front lines of battle risking both being shot by the enemy and hit by friendly fire - Bunky Echo-Hawk wonders how someone can live on a reserve with a toxic waste dump and create art work that omits that reality. Why not weave a blanket with bio-hazard warnings woven into the pattern he asks.

Today's Native artist faces the bullet of colonization in that no one is interested in seeing modern Indian life depicted. The public at large is in love with the image of the stoic, feathered warrior, and the doe-eyed Pochahantes. They don't want to see pictures of Sitting Bull being interviewed by Larry King or a Chief wearing a gas mask. The arrow in the back is the easy acceptances of assimilation and the capitulation by so many Natives who are more than willing to give the public what they want instead of reality.
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The work of the thirteen artists included in this book, the thirteen of the 130 who applied and were selected for the show, are in all mediums; photography, pen and ink, paint on canvass, silk screened posters, and even tattoo designs. Each of the images in some way reflects something about the present day Native circumstance. Some of them are celebrations of the way in which traditions like Pow Wows are continued today, others, like Bunky's works depict realities that nobody wants to admit exists.

Three of my favourite pieces are a poster by Thomas Ryan Red Corn with a picture of the four carvings on Mount Rushmore captioned by the word Vandalism, referring to the fact that the Black Hills are treaty lands stolen from the Lakota; a self portrait by Micah Wesley depicting her fall into the desolation of addictions and self loathing; and a photograph of an elderly woman in Jingle Dress regalia at a Pow Wow by Valerie Norris. These three disparate images are the epitome of what this exhibit was trying to capture through their depiction of the political and personal struggles that face Native Americans, and the enduring strength of their culture in spite of adversity.

Art is what we use as a people to tell our story to other people, and it is the obligation of a people's artists to be truthful in order for the rest of the world to understand them. The Native American Rights Fund uses the motto "The Indian Wars Never Ended", with unspoken colliery being the battleground has merely shifted. While NARF and people like them can take the war to the court rooms and the halls of power, it's up to the cultural warriors to change people's perceptions of who Native people are and the battle they fight today.

If Visions For The Future: A Celebration Of Young Native American Artists is any indication of the type of art being produced in "Indian Country" by today's young Native artists, there is a new generation of warriors prepared to do what it takes to make people realize North American Indians are alive and well and here to stay.

Artwork: "Inheriting The Legacy" and "Sitting Bull Intimate" by Bunky Echo-Hawk

February 24, 2008

Book Review: Joy Division: Piece By Piece

By the time I heard my first Joy Division song, the compelling and chilling "Atmosphere", lead singer Ian Curtis had been dead for almost a year. After only two years as a band, two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, a twelve inch single version of the song "Atmosphere", and the day before they were to start their American tour, Ian Curtis hung himself May 19th 1980.

I'm sure many people have spent hours, days, months even, pouring over the lyrics and song titles, looking for any indication Ian might have given that he was planning on killing himself, and with power of hindsight have no doubt been very successful. Considering the fact that the band's lyrics were fixated on exploring the darker recesses of the soul, I'm willing to bet that if you were liberal enough in your interpretations, you could not only find the reasons for his suicide within the lyrics, but the exact time and location as well!

There were far too many people that I knew that liked the band for all the wrong reasons, as a kind of death cult sprung up around the memory of Ian Curtis. It was like the band had ceased to exist as a musical entity, and became a vehicle for worshipping suicide. After all wasn't suicide the ultimate expression of the nihilism that Punk and then subsequently New Wave music was all about?

That attitude never sat well with me, as I always found something rather life affirming about most of Punk rock, Johnny Rotten's rants about no future notwithstanding. You can't sing about resistance with the amount of energy that the Clash did and not have hope for the future. That's not to say I didn't like Joy Division, because I did. They had a unique sound, and their lyrics, while somewhat melodramatic, at least made a stab at emotional depth and itelligence.
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So when I saw that Paul Morley who had been the New Music Express'(NME) Manchester stringer (Manchester England being Joy Division's home city) had written Joy Division: Piece By Piece I was intrigued enough to want to check it out. What Morley has done is gather together the articles he wrote about Joy Division and the Manchester music scene from when he first started writing for NME back in 1976/77 up until a voice over he wrote for a 2005 radio broadcast about the band in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ian Curtis's death.

Thankfully he's done more than just put together a book of old articles, scripts, and liner notes and called it a history of the band. Instead he has created a narration that recounts the background surrounding the writing of the articles, and places them in their context both professionally and personally. One of the things he makes clear is he was just as raw and untested as the bands he was covering.

Now anybody who followed the new music of the late seventies and early eighties will remember that seemingly out of nowhere Manchester became a hot bed of pop music. If London had been the home of Punk in England, than Manchester was where the Post Punk movement was created. Being one of the few cities where the town council didn't prohibit the Sex Pistols from playing, Manchester ended up being a stop on the "Anarchy In The U.K." tour twice.

According to Morely it was these two visits that were at the root of the explosion that not only saw the creation of Joy Division, but The Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto's Magazine, The Fall, and maybe most importantly of all was the impetus for the creation of Martin Hannett's Factory Records. Not only did they record and produce most of the above, they were responsible for Manchester's second wave of Post Punk performers in the early 1980s with bands like A Certain Ratio and Duretti Column.

In the mid to late seventies Manchester was struggling through a recession caused by being an industrial city without industry and in desperate need of an infusion of some type of new energy. As Morely was writing his first article for NME about the Manchester music scene he was also dealing with the fact that his father had just committed suicide. Morely makes it clear that his father's suicide and the state that Manchester was in at the time were definitely related. He's also honest enough to admit that it obviously coloured what he wrote, and because of that he couldn't write off a quartet of guys called Warsaw, who would become Joy Division, no matter how lost they appeared on stage.
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He never claims any precognition; no I saw the greatness in them before they were great. Instead the implication is that on some level because his father had felt so little hope that he wasn't able to continue, Morely wasn't going to be the one to dash anybody's hopes if he saw anything at all that suggested they could be going somewhere.

I have to admit that I found Morely's language a little too grandiose for the topic; popular music is fun, and occasionally intelligent, but is still more reliant on craft than artistry. Whenever I read people who write about popular music as if its of vital importance, I'm left with the feeling that they are working under the following premise: If what I write about is important, than I'm important, so I must make it sound as important as possible. Joy Division were an exciting pop group that were part of an exciting music scene in the late 70s and early 80's, but the real reason they are still remembered as well as they are to this day is because their lead singer committed suicide.

Paul Morely has done a good job of recreating the atmosphere and energy that was part of the alternative music scene during the late seventies when Joy Division were at their peak. He is also able to provide us with an insider's, as much as anybody can be an insider when suicide is involved, view of the turbulent and sad history of the late Ian Curtis. Yet in the end, no matter how hard he tries to make a case for it, there's nothing really earth shattering about the subject matter and nothing about the book justifies its 380 plus pages.

February 22, 2008

Book Review: Without Waxxx William Walsh

There aren't many pariahs left in this world as we have become inured to just about everything the world has to offer. Yet in spite of being able to accept nearly everything else under the sun, people who make their living having sex in front of cameras are still looked upon as if they crawled out from under a rock. In fact, in spite of it's proliferation through-out the Internet and elsewhere, most producers and suppliers of pornography are looked upon as being only a step removed from white slavery.

In fact the antipathy towards the business is so universal that it comes in for equal bashing from those on both extremities of the political spectrum. It may be for different reasons, but both the religious right and the radical left condemn pornography and pornographers out of hand. While the one claims it's because they don't like the way women are depicted and the other because they don't like sex, the end result is the same.

Of course North America and sex have always had a strange relationship in that while people don't see anything wrong with depicting a person literally being eaten alive on a movie screen, two people having sex is enough to send half the continent into a state of shock. The sad truth is that for too many people the equation of sex equals sin has made something that should be a pleasurable experience into something they feel the have to be ashamed of.
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Yet in spite of that, or maybe because of that (I'll leave that to the psychologists and social workers to figure out) there's always been a big demand for pornography in our society. From the dirty postcards of the early part of the twentieth century to the web sites and DVDs of today, the stuff wouldn't be made if there people weren't willing to pay for it. But who are the people willing to appear in the movies and pose for the pictures? Are they somebody's innocent son or daughter whose morals were corrupted by evil people leading them astray, or even worse, addicting them to a thousand drugs so they will do anything for their next fix?

In all likely-hood it's none of the above, as drugs usually are a detriment to performance, and the mainstream adult film industry doesn't need to coerce people into taking part in their movies as there are always more then enough people willing and able to choose from. If that's the case it must mean, horror of horrors, these people want to be doing what they're doing. Working from that premise, William Walsh has created what he calls a documentary novel that traces the life and career of leading man Wax Williams from his childhood days in Ampersand California to when he throws in the towel and retires from the world of adult films.

Without Waxxx, published by Casperian Books, is more than simply a linear biography of Wax, as Walsh has structured the book like a movie, complete with talking head interviews, flashbacks, and cut-away shots to reflect a characters thoughts. Interspersed within the "footage" about the life of Wax, are various small vignettes that are profiles of Wax's fans. As a type of piece de resistance, he has also included a the script from Wax's first feature, which might be short on dialogue but long on the inventive stage directions unique to an adult film.

Wax hadn't set out to be a porn star, in fact at one point during high school it looked like he had a chance of having a decent career in baseball - at least triple A if not the majors - if only he hadn't had that additional growth spurt. As a child Wax was a slow developer - slow to the point that his parents were concerned enough to send him to a doctor who claimed he had come up with a way to increase a young man's size so he'd have no cause ever to be embarrassed again. The so-called doctor's treatment turned out to include a combination of growth hormones, steroids, exercise, and a stretching devise.

While there's no doubt the procedure was effective, Wax went from being an 98 pound weakling in his first year of high school to being a star third baseman in only two years, it soon became apparent that his extra length was a hindrance when it came to running the bases and playing the field. As one of the directors he worked with commented when asked about Wax - there aren't many other lines of work, aside from the adult film industry, where his specific enhancement could be parlayed into a career, so becoming a porn start was pretty much a no-brainer.

Through interviews with co-performers and technical folk Wax worked with we learn that while there are other equally well endowed performers in the adult film business (nobody in the book refers to it as pornography) Wax had a boy next door quality that endeared him to women and made him far less threatening to men. It was this combination that quickly made him a star in the adult business and allowed his management to market a whole range of "Wax Williams" sex toys.

Walsh has been very careful to write Without Wax in a manner that appears to be faithful to the documentary ideal of objectivity. Every so often while reading I was forced to remind myself that in fact this was a work of fiction no matter how it looked. So, even though it appears the characters are being presented in a non-objective manner, and that the author has no opinion one way or another, he has written each one of them with intent and purpose. We're supposed to feel like we are making up our own minds about circumstances and people, when of course he's guiding us by having created everything we read.

The result of this is that he forces us to look honestly at our own opinions and reactions to pornography. By creating the illusion that it's a documentary the reader feels that he or she is "allowed" to be reading material that they probably wouldn't under normal circumstances. Periodically he will deliberately shatter that illusion by including elements that sound like they come directly from an "adult movie" and forces you to realize that you've actually been reading pornography not a report on it.

When it doesn't stop it from being a good book, and you realize you want to read the book to its finish because you've been enjoying it - what does that say about pornography and what does that say about you? If you're honest with yourself this book will make you reconsider any of your conceptions about pornography and about the adult film business.

This is a well written and thoughtful book about a subject that most people have a knee jerk reaction too. William Walsh's Without Waxxx, in spite of being a work of fiction, is probably the most honest book you'll find written about pornography today. If you're willing to be as honest with yourself as the book is, you might just find yourself thinking about the adult film industry in a different light then you did before.

February 4, 2008

Movie Review: Your Mommy Kills Animals

Ever since Greenpeace started photographing pictures of baby seals being clubbed to death during the annual seal hunt in Newfoundland Canada and putting themselves between whaler's harpoons and their prey, the issue of humanity's relationship with the creatures we share the planet with has become an increasingly hot topic. The fur industry, cosmetic industry, soap companies, the food industry, whaling, and companies that use animals in any sort of laboratory testing have all been subject to intense scrutiny, and forced to change their practices due to the activities of groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherds.

It wasn't that long ago when it was considered perfectly acceptable for a company to do what ever it wanted to animals when it came to testing if their latest shampoos would make your eyes water. Now of course no one would dream of putting out a shampoo or skin care product which didn't contain the magic words "NO ANIMAL TESTING" or variations on that theme or risk the ire of animal activists. Huntington Life Services found out what that mean as the campaign against them was so successful that it resulted in various corporations across the United States severing ties with it, and the company being forbidden from trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Like any other emotionally charged issue where people tend to check their brains at the door and have knee jerk responses on both sides of the argument, finding anything approaching a fair and balanced look at the issue has been next to impossible. It hasn't helped matters that the government of the United States has rushed to protect the people that guarantee their elections each year by passing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 making activities affecting the profit making ability of a business conducting animal testing an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act. Heavy-handed reactions like that aren't liable to created conditions conducive to calm and rational debates.
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So I was delighted to find that the documentary feature film Your Mommy Kills Animals just released on DVD made a concentrated effort to be as unbiased and even handed as possible. While it's obvious the makers have sympathy for the work done by certain organizations in regards to Animal Welfare, and they regard the prosecution individuals charged and sentenced under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional, they do their best to merely observe and report.

The film is not for the fainthearted or squeamish as it contains footage smuggled out of facilities where testing on animals is conducted, and other imagery of cruelty to animals. While it could be argued that including this footage detracts from their impartiality, it is part of the reality that the movie is documenting. They have done their best to keep those scenes to a minimum and keep them in context rather than exploiting the imagery for an agenda.

One of the first things the film makers do is differentiate between the two types of groups working in the United States to alleviate the suffering of animals. Animal Welfare groups, are primarily people and organizations that run shelters and rescue facilities for domesticated and companion animals (pets). Animal activists are the groups whose primary focus is preventing the use of animals in industry; factory farms, the fur industry, medical and cosmetic testing, and what they consider the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes (zoos and circuses primarily)

The first part of the film is given over to explaining what exactly each group does, and the differences in their approaches to the issue of animal protection. The people who run the shelters and rescue facilities have as their primary concern keeping the animals alive and giving them a safe haven from a world that's treated them badly. Most of these facilities exist as chances of last resort for animals who otherwise would be put down by local or city run animal shelters, or who have been abandoned in the wild by their owners.

These people come across as being just what you'd expect them to be - warm, generous, and compassionate humans who have devoted their lives to care for animals. Something this movie makes abundantly clear is, that in spite of the impression they might give to the contrary the United States Humane Society (USHS) does not run or fund any animal shelters whatsoever. When you give money to them, none of it will find it's way to your city run Humane Society of shelter. In fact the impression one gets of the United States Humane Society is of an organization more concerned with it's image than actually carrying out the business of saving animal lives.

While the animal welfare people come across as intelligent and caring individuals, the animal rights people aren't necessarily as easy to like. The tactics they use are pretty much the same as those used by the anti-abortion groups; demonstrating at employees homes at all hours of the day or night, committing acts of vandalism at facilities that conduct animal testing from graffiti, liberating the animals, and up to and including arson. Their goal is to foster an environment where these companies are unable to conduct business unless they cease animal testing.

Whether we like them or not, they have had a certain amount of success in achieving their goal of making it increasingly difficult for companies to conduct business in the manner in which they were accustomed to. In fact it's their very success which caused the implementation of the new act mentioned earlier in this review. Of the first seven individuals who were charged under that act, six have been found guilty and been sentenced to anything from one to six years in jail and ordered to pay 1 million dollar fines, are all interviewed in this film and don't seem anymore dangerous than you or I.

None of them were charged with actually carrying out any acts of violence, and none of them have taken part in any activities described earlier. They were all charged because of information that was posted at a web site encouraging people to take action against Huntington Life Sciences, in spite of the fact there is no proof linking them directly to the web site's publication. As a person in the film who doesn't agree with their tactics said though, the most troubling part of all this is the fact that they were charged for advocating activities that anti-abortion groups, anti-homosexual and AIDS organizations, and the Klu Klux Klan are allowed to advocate or carry out with impunity. America's cherished constitutional clause guaranteeing free speech seems to be very selective.

You may have noticed that I've not mentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in this review, and been wondering why a film about animal activism doesn't talk about them. First of all PETA refused to be interviewed for the movie and so they weren't able to rebut any of the accusations levelled against them. It seems that people on both sides of the issue, form the animal rights camp, the animal welfare camp, and the people who argue in favour of animal testing can agree on at least one thing - an intense dislike of PETA.

While most people seem intent on preserving the lives of animals, or making their situation better, PETA has been steadily running up the highest euthanasia percentage among all animal rescue groups. In one year they put down 85% of the animals they took in from shelters instead of either housing them of finding them new homes. We're talking about healthy animals that would have lived years, but PETA decided that it's better to kill them than to keep them penned up. In general PETA is another organization that comes across as being more interested in their status and seeking celebrity endorsements then the welfare of animals.

Your Mommy Kills Animals, the title is taken from that of a "comic" that PETA hands out to children that shows pictures of a rabbit before and after its been skinned that repeatedly states "your mommy kills animals", does its best to give an objective view of the various organizations and individuals who are involved in advocating for a world in which humans treat animals with respect and dignity. While the movie makes no bones about the fact that it considers the terrorist charges brought against individuals within the animal rights movement unconstitutional and a dangerous precedent on the grounds of denial of freedom of speech. it does it's level best to present as impartial a picture as possible. In the end it leaves it up to the viewer to make his or her own decision about the issue after hearing from everyone from mink farmers to Paul Watson founder of Sea Shepherds the anti whaling group.

Unlike a number of current documentaries that are no more than propaganda for a filmmaker's pet issue, Your Mommy Kills Animals does its best to simply document the issue without prejudice.

January 30, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere Mike Carey & Genn Fabry

For as long as we've been telling stories, we've been adapting them to other media in attempts to gain a different perspective on what the story has to offer. From the moment the first actor stepped out of the chorus to start "performing" the myths and stories of Ancient Greece to the film adaptations of popular novels today almost every mode of artistic expression has turned to the written (or spoken word) for inspiration.

The visual arts in the West have always had a long association with literary adaptations, as painting. sculpture, and other modes of representation were preoccupied with interpretations of the Christian Bible for hundreds of years. Even when they moved on to more secular subject matter it wasn't uncommon for artists to draw upon imagery from classical literature for their subject matter.

Of course the use of illustrations in literary works to augment a story is an even older tradition, as the earliest manuscripts, predating the printing press, were filled with decoration and ornamentation. One only has to look at any page from the Book Of Kells to appreciate that. Of course more prosaic forms of the illustrated novel have also existed for some time, but it wasn't until the means of mass producing printed material became common that the illustrating of books began in earnest.

Harry Clarke, perhaps most famous for his stained glass, and Aubrey Beardsley both had great success with illustrating the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With the introduction of the comic book in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the practice of telling stories with pictures and words became commonplace. I can still remember as a child the Classic imprint that specialized in abridged adaptations of classic childhood adventure stories by authors such as Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson.
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So it's no surprise that as comic books have become more sophisticated and broadened their audience base to include adults as well as children, that their literary adaptations have grown accordingly. Of course the work of some authors lends itself more readily to this form than others; the chances of seeing a graphic novel version of To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe are probably slim while it wasn't surprising to find that an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere had been produced by Vertigo, the DC comics' graphic novel imprint.

As with most comic/graphic work, the adaptation of Neverwhere is dependant on the quality of its illustrations as much as, if not more than, the writing for its ability to tell the story. Like a movie or a play, the graphic novel is a synthesis of the visual and the literary arts. In some respects it's an even purer form than the others, because it only has those two elements at it's disposal, while the others can utilize sound and visual trickery that's not available to those working in a static format.

The story of Neverwhere is deceptively simple. Richard Mayhew is your typical office drone working in London England. His life consists of work and doing what his fiancee instructs him to do. He drifts along in this manner until one day he stops to help a young woman who he sees lying injured on the sidewalk. This moment of compassion will change his life forever.

The young woman he helps turns out not to be from the London he knows, but a London that exists underneath the city he is familiar with. Her name is Lady Door and we quickly find out that she is in serious trouble indeed. Her whole family has been killed by persons unknown and she's desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the killers until she can find out who was responsible for ordering the killings.

Although Richard initially doesn't become involved with Lady Door's quest, he soon finds he has no choice in the matter. Once he has been exposed to the world of the London below, he finds that the people in his own London no longer recognize his existence. Not only has his job disappeared, but his Bank card has stopped working, and his apartment is being rented out from under him. In desperation he seeks a way to find the Lady Door again, hoping that she can find a way for him to regain his old life.

He joins Lady Door and her companions and sets out on the quest to help her find the one who ordered her family killed. As the journey continues Richard grows and rediscovers his sense of self worth, and value as an individual that had been trampled under foot by his fiancee and the realities of working a boring office job. Although he spends a good deal of his time scared out of his wits, and wishing he were back in his London. he is more alive then ever.
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The author and the illustrator have done an amazing job in both telling the story and creating a visual representation of the world it takes place in. While they have had to streamline and leave out some bits from the original novel to accommodate the medium, they have done so without sacrificing any of the elements essential to the tale. What I found especially powerful was their willingness to let the illustrations speak for themselves and tell the story pictorially in places.

There are some truly wonderful moments, where they have elected to use large panels that succeed in both setting the scene and generating the atmosphere of the moment without any dialogue. It's times like these when you realize what makes this media so special, and how potent great visuals can be. With one or two panels they are able to accomplish what would take an author three to four pages to describe.

To my mind Glenn Fabry's illustrations captured the world Neil Gaiman described in his book perfectly. While I never develloped any clear idea of what individual characters would look like, I had an image in mind of what I thought the world should look and feel like. Fabry was able to capture the essence and atmosphere of the world perfectly. A sort of 19th century England gone to seed mixed with a strong sense of the exotic and fantastic thrown in for good measure.

For those of you who are fans of Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere and are looking for a visual adaptation of the novel, Vertigo's presentation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Glenn Fabry is the perfect solution. It's as exciting as the original story, and superbly illustrated. What more could you ask for?

January 15, 2008

Canadain Book Publisher, Raincoast Books, Stops Publishing

When the Canadian dollar started rising last fall most Canadians were excited at the prospect of being able to purchase consumer goods at cheaper prices. After all if the Canadian dollar was worth more than the American, we should be able to pick up deals on items coming up from the States. While there is truth to that logic, if a Canadian were to buy something that was priced in American dollars they would save money, it doesn't always bear out, and has actually meant hard times for some industries.

Even before the loonie (the Canadian one dollar coin has a picture of a loon on its tail's side and is referred to as a loonie) went above par against U.S. currency there were rumblings of worry from Canadian book publishers. Canadian book buyers have long been accustomed to seeing two prices on the backs of their books; one for the Canadian market, and a less expensive - by about ten to twelve dollars for a hardcover - one for the American market. Since most people have always put that down to the differences in the purchasing value of the two dollars - it was expected that publishers in Canada would be able start cutting their prices.

In reality the worth of the Canadian dollar had little to do with pricing of titles in this country. The biggest single factor dictating price is a simple matter of market size. Quoted in The Globe & Mail, Canada's national newspaper, Carolyn Quinn, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, said that with a potential market of only 33 million people, you have to charge more in the hopes of recouping your outlay, than you would for a market of over 200 million.

In the face of an anticipated consumer revolt though, Canadian publishers have been forced to drop their prices between 25 and 30%. Although that has already translated into a four % increase in sales, and an increase if 3 % in total dollar sales for the fall of 2007, the long term forecast isn't as rosy. It's simple math, you reduce prices by 25%, your revenue drops by 25%. If your total sales is only increasing 3% that means you're taking an actual loss of 22% in total revenue.

While the larger international houses like Random House, Penguin, and others can probably weather this storm, the smaller distributors and publishers won't be as fortunate. In fact the first casualty was just announced. Just last week Raincoast Publishing of British Columbia announced they would no longer be publishing original works, and would be focusing on distributing imported titles only.

While director of marketing and publicity for Raincoast, Jamie Broadhurst, claims it's because 80% of their business comes from distributing American titles, and having to reduce prices by 20% across the board due to public demand is forcing them to cut their publishing division, something about that claim rings a little hollow. According to Roy MacSkimming, author of The Perilous Trade - a history of publishing in Canada - Raincoast has been reducing the publishing arm of its business steadily for the past little while and since a management change a few years ago, they stopped developping any new talent.

Adding fuel to the fire that this bottom line move has been in the works for a while is the fact that Raincoast has co-published the entire Harry Potter series in Canada with Bloomsbury books. In some years this has resulted in Raincoast books having in excess of $70 million in revenues. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hollows has sold 750,000 hardcover copies alone since its publication last July, which is phenomenal considering the size of the Canadian market.

Of course Broadhurst was quick to reassure everyone that they wouldn't be stopping publishing the Potter books, nobody's going to gut the goose that lays the golden egg after all. In the same breath though he said that the money from the Potter books were kept separate from the the other arms of Raincoast, and was used to allow them to become the pre-eminent book distributor in Canada. In other words they had no interest in publishing and were more intent on ensuring the continuation of the far more potentially lucrative business of distributing American and British popular titles.

In Canada book publishers are eligible for support from the Canadian government to help them offset the costs of publishing books in such a small market. But even with programs like the Book Publishing Industry Development Program profit margins are small. Yet that doesn't seem to stop small presses across the country from developing new talent, and publishing books. None of which make anywhere near the return that Harry and his buddies do on a yearly basis for Raincoast.

The Potter books aren't going to be some passing fad either - they have all the makings of a perennial classic, like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. People will be buying them for generations to come. It would have been quite easy for Raincoast to designate a percentage of the revenue from those sales to underwrite their publishing wing instead of sinking it all back into the distribution of foreign books. It's ironic that foreign owned subsidiaries like Random House Canada, Penguin Canada, and Harper Collins Canada do that with the American best sellers they distribute in Canada, but a so called Canadian publisher won't.

While it's true the increased value of the Canadian dollar will make life difficult for Canadian publishers over the next few years, the decision by Raincoast Books to drop its publishing wing entirely, appears to have been in the works long before the dollar's climb. They have merely seized upon it as a convenient excuse to bring about the end sooner. It's a sad day for books in Canada when a profitable Canadian publisher turns its back on its own authors in favour of distributing foreign works. They really aren't a publisher anymore; just another business importing foreign goods doing nothing to develop Canada's industry or economy.

January 13, 2008

DVD Review: Slings And Arrows: The Complete Collection

"The plays the thing, wherein I'll capture the conscience of the King", says a certain young Prince of Denmark, expressing his hope that a staged re enactment of his father's death will cause his Uncle the King to reveal his guilt. Even in Shakespeare's time the idea of a play within a play was common enough, and over the years there have been a variety of productions that have featured variations on that theme.

They have either been like Hamlet where a play is mounted incidental to the central action but significant to the plot, or as in Noises Off been the focus of the production that has centred around a company's attempts to mount a performance. I've always felt a rather mild sense of dislocation in watching actors play actors, as there is something strange watching them create what are usually exaggerated versions of themselves. That's especially true of productions where there are characters who are Actors with a capital "A", and the characters have been rendered as a series of clichés by the playwright.

You can always count on there being an ingenue with stars in her eyes, a wise old character actor who has seen it all and knows every trick in the book, a bitter leading lady on her last run at good parts before being relegated to the scrap heap of character roles, a venerable leading man who will show up drunk as a skunk for dress rehearsal, the up and coming arrogant star who will be taught a lesson in humility, and of course the benevolent father figure of the director who pours balm onto troubled egos, and somehow manages to nurse the whole production safely through opening night.

It always has amazed me that people who work in theatre are able to go on stage or in front of the cameras and present something that does disservice to their profession by perpetuating people's perceptions of theatrical professionals as undisciplined eccentrics whose success and failure hinge more on fortune than on skill. Therefore it was with some trepidation that I began watching the seven DVDs, (six are three years of episodes and the seventh is bonus features), that comprise the box set of Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection.
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What attracted me in the first place to the production, the fact that the lead roles were being performed by some of the best actors in Canada, also went a long way towards assuaging my doubts. I hoped that the combined skill of Paul Gross (Due South), Martha Burns (arguably the best classical female actor of her generation), Stephen Ouimette, and Mark McKinney among the regulars, and with guest stars the likes of Sarah Polley, Rachel McAdams, Colem Feore, and the incandescent William Hutt, that any deficiencies in plot and script would be overcome by sheer talent.

The New Burbage Theatre Festival of Slings & Arrows is obviously modelled on Canada's renowned Stratford Shakespearean Festival right down to the swans that float gracefully through the river passing through town. Like the company its based on, the New Burbage is struggling to maintain its artistic integrity while remaining financially viable. As is often the case in real life artistry, is coming out on the losing end. Too many of the artistic staff, including the artistic director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette), are merely going through the motions without any real passion for the job anymore.

In contrast we are offered a glimpse of the life on the low end of the theatrical totem pole in the shape of the Festival's prodigal son Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) as he struggles to keep his small alternate theatre alive by passing bad checks. Seven years ago Geoffrey had suffered a nervous breakdown on stage during a production of Hamlet at the Festival and had fled vowing never to return. But fate has other plans in store for him. When Oliver Wells is run over and killed, after passing out in a road drunk, by a delivery truck, Geoffrey allows himself to be persuaded to become interim artistic director. By the end of the first season he finds himself appointed full artistic director.

Each of the three season's six episodes focus on Geoffrey's efforts to direct one of three major works of Shakespeare; Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Each season the conflict between money and art grows, and the struggle for control of the festival between Geoffrey and the General Manager, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) intensifies. Although he appears to get the point about the power of art periodically, Smith-Jones continually allows himself to be seduced by the lure of power, and the power of the buck until he is finally "too steeped in blood" to turn back.

The other major sub-plot that runs throughout the three seasons is the "star crossed" relationship between Geoffrey and the festival's leading lady Ellen Fenshaw (Martha Burns). They had first come together during Geoffrey's first stint at the Festival when they were both actors working under Oliver Wells' direction. She had been his Ophelia to his Hamlet and they had been madly in love. But when she slept with gay Oliver, Geoffrey, torn apart by what he saw as his betrayal at the hands of the two people he loved and trusted the most, suffered his infamous onstage breakdown.
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Seven years later they both have to deal with the anger, grief, and unresolved feelings between them, while working as actor and director and figuring out what to do about the fact that they've never stopped loving each other. Further clouding the issue is the looming presence of Oliver Wells between them. Not only is his legacy all around them, the Macbeth Geoffrey has to stage is expected by all to be based on extensive notes and designs that Oliver left behind, but Geoffrey is literally being haunted by Oliver's ghost.

At first Geoffrey tries to dismiss it as a delusion, but gradually he comes to accept that Oliver is really there, and refusing to acknowledge his presence only makes matters worse. Of course it does nothing to reassure others that his history of mental illness is in the past when he is seen having conversations and arguing with the someone who isn't there. But in the end ghost and man begin to take pleasure in each other's company.

The creators of Slings & Arrows could have taken any number of approaches to the series; satire, farce, or even melodramatic soap opera. Instead they took a path that's not often travelled on this continent when it comes to television, and avoided taking any approach at all. Like the theatre itself, Slings & Arrows is larger than life, but if characters and situations are exaggerated, it is never beyond the realm of believability and always to serve the aims of the script. There's not a cheap laugh or manipulated sentiment to be seen as the script, direction, and actors work in together to write a love letter to the object of their mutual affection - the theatre.

As I had assumed the acting is exceptional from the smallest of bit parts to the leads. Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Susan Coyne, and Mark McKinney (the latter two were also two-thirds of the writing team) as the five leads gave wonderful performances. Burns in particular handled the extremely difficult task of making a flamboyant character realistic by allowing the person under the actor's mask to show through as often as possible without it appearing to be a conscience effort.

Then there's the Shakespeare. I don't remember the last time that I've seen such universally wonderful handling of the text by all the actors required to speak the dialogue. For those of you who have ever feared Shakespearean language and say it's impossible to understand, I challenge you to retain that opinion after watching any of the episodes in Slings & Arrows where they venture onto the stage and perform.

Watching the late William Hutt recreate one of his final roles at Stratford, King Lear, in episode three, is watching a clinic in how to speak the language, and to remember that power has nothing to do with being loud. And I defy anyone to keep a dry eye when Rachel McAdams performs Ophelia's "Will he come again" speech from Hamlet in episode one. These are but two of many superlative performances of Shakespeare placed throughout the entire series, and I can only hope that perhaps upon seeing them, one or two people might be persuaded that there is more to theatre than pyrotechnics or song and dance.

While some of Slings & Arrows might come across as an in-joke, the beauty of this production is that the audience is given a very real look at what goes on behind the scenes in a repertory theatre company on both the artistic and business side of the ledger. That the balance is skewed to favour the art over the business is a choice that may not be in keeping with the current political climate - but it makes for a nice change from how the arts are normally presented.

Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection is available directly from the distributor Acorn Media and would make a wonderful gift for the theatre lover in your family or perhaps as a means to convince others of how wonderful the theatre can truly be. "We are all, but merely players" in the end after-all.

December 21, 2007

DVD Review: Pride And Prejudice: Special Tenth Anniversary Limited Editon

It's a strange and wondrous thing that the last twenty years has seen the writing of a woman whose been dead nearly two hundred years be adapted for film and television more often than any other writer either living or dead. During her too short life Jane Austen published only four books, and had two more published after her death. While her books must seem somewhat archaic to a modern audience, reflecting as they did the mores of her time, they would have been considered quite revolutionary at the time of their publication.

In the late 18th century and early 19th century when she lived the majority of popular writing was far more romantic, with the flamboyant tales of Sir Walter Scott being preferred by the reading public over her near realistic descriptions of life and love among the gentry. As is still often the case today, there were not many in her day who preferred to read about their own foibles when they could read about the romantic exploits of King Arthur or other idealized heroes.

Still her work persisted, and unlike the aforementioned Scott and his fellow Romantics, her work has stood the test of time and she is now one of the most widely read female writers in the English language. Even today there are very few authors who have managed to create such beloved characters as those who inhabit Jane Austin's books, with Pride And Prejudice and the love story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy being arguably the best loved and most famous of them all.
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The fact that of all her novels, Pride And Prejudice has been adapted probably more often to the stage and screen than perhaps her other books combined only serves to emphasis the chord that this story has struck with modern audiences. With everyone from Lawrence Oliver to Keira Knightly playing one of the two leads over the years it appears that every generation in the modern era has taken a stab at lifting the characters from the page to wander briefly among us.

But of all the productions, and all the actors who have taken on the rolls of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, the one that seems to have caught people's imaginations the most was the 1995 co-production between the Arts & Entertainment Network (A&E), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. At five hours in length this version of Pride And Prejudice was able to develop the dramatic potential of the novel to its fullest. All the humour, pathos, and insight of the novel remained intact as very little of the book had to be compressed or sacrificed because of time constraints.

The first time I watched this production I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle. The acting was universally outstanding, the sets and locations were not only spectacular, but appropriate for their occupants, and the set dances were immaculate in terms of their staging and for the edge to the energy that ran underneath them. The dances were the one place where the normal restraints of society were loosened and individuals stole what chances they could to exchange messages with those who were objects of their affections.

It's funny to think of supposedly staid Jane Austen as having sexual tension, but during the dances - where partners barely even touched each other - it was so thick that you could have cut it with a knife. The energy that crackled between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy was so strong that you could almost see the charge connecting them and it was amazing that anyone who moved between them wasn't charred to a crisp. Of course it wasn't just them starting fires as the whole room was charged with the energy of passion too long held in check.

Watching it again, more then ten years later, I was once again struck at how astounding the production was. In the interim I had seen various other adaptation of Austen's books, and only the production of Sense And Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman had come close to matching it for quality and emotional depth. Even that wonderful production suffered in comparison, as it felt constrained by the time limitations imposed on cinematic releases.
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But when it comes down to it, Pride And Prejudice will only fly so high as it's Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy allow it to. In those days Colin Firth was not the household name he is now, it was in fact this production that catapulted him to stardom, and Jennifer Ehle was an unknown. Elizabeth is described as being full of life and spirited, with an independent nature that is in contrast to the normal behaviour for her time. Somehow Ms. Ehle manages to convey that energy and independence while portraying what is ostensibly a dutiful daughter. She appears on the surface a typical daughter, respectful of her parents and responsible in her duties as elder sister, but as Mr. Darcy finds out, cross her at your peril.

In some ways Colin Firth has a lot less to work with in Mr. Darcy, as he appears to be merely another typically emotionally repressed Englishman. Aristocratic by birth, he is far less inclined toward the snobbery and prejudices that typify his class and less inclined to judge people by what they are as opposed to how they account for themselves. This doesn't stop him from being arrogant, or at least coming across as arrogant, in his dealings with others, which is what initially sets Elizabeth against him.

What makes Mr. Firth's performance so astounding is how he lets both the audience and Elizabeth begin to see under Mr. Darcy's mask. It is so subtle that we wouldn't even realize that his attitude towards her is undergoing a change except for a gradual relaxing of his lips and eyes when he glances at her. Of course it becomes even more obvious when he rides to the rescue of Elizabeth's younger sister, from an unwise elopement, in order to spare the family from the taint of scandal before the inevitable can happen and she is left pregnant and alone.

Both actors have created such letter perfect characters, that watching the inevitable unfold has never been so enjoyable. In fact they are both so believable that even knowing what will happen in the end, I was beset with doubt as to the ending up until the final resolution. Of course the rest of the cast are every bit as effective in their roles, otherwise the production wouldn't succeed, but it is Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett who this universe revolves around and they are the stars in its firmament.

For those of you, like me, who believe this version of Pride And Prejudice to be one of the best made, A & E's special Tenth Anniversary package of the series is a wonderful memento of a brilliant piece of television. You not only get the entire five hours of the series on two discs, they've prepared a third disc of special features including the Jane Austen episode of the A & E series Biography, and a special tenth anniversary feature that recounts the making of the series that includes interviews with some of the actors, the producer, the composer, and others who were involved with the production.

They've also included a companion book to the series that was originally published by Penguin when the show first appeared. The Making of Pride and Prejudice is co-authored by the shows producer Sue Burtwistle. Its full of colour photographs of the shoot in the making as well as details of all the nitty gritty that it took to get such a huge operation filmed and to television screens. Unlike a lot of books of this type this is not merely a "fan" letter and it gives the reader a very good overview of the work involved from securing financing to painting props and making sure the extras get their coffee breaks (well maybe not the last bit, but you get the picture).

It's all been beautifully packaged as is appropriate, and you can purchase it directly from the A &E Catalogue. If you have never seen this production of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice then you owe it to yourself to see it now, and if you've already seen it, consider that's it's probably time to see to it anew and be amazed at its brilliance all over again.

December 5, 2007

Book Review: Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Edited By Eric Gansworth

"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat..."Listen" I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back"... So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things left with all the strength we have. Sherman Alexie, "The Unauthorised Biography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007
Why do you write? Me, I write because I don't feel whole unless I get my fix everyday. I'm sure the same goes for everybody who feels the urge to paint, sing, dance, yodel, build, photograph, chip stone, melt steel, carve wood, and recreate something they've heard, seen, imagined, visualized, conceptualized, or dreamed. Each day we get up and put fingers to keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, paintbrushes, modeling clay, microphones, hammers, pencils, charcoal, and paint and take a stab at godhood by attempting creation.

A short story writer, you start to write but are brought up short when you realize you're writing in a foreign language. An Englishman or North American writes in English because that's the language of her people. French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Zulu, Swahili, Mongolian, and Russian alike can all write in the language that their ancestors have spoken a variation of for generations.
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Your grandparents had their names stolen from their tongues and your parents have the vocabulary of infants, while you are illiterate and mute in the language of your people. The voice you once thought so alive, now sounds dead in your ears as it tell your stories, the stories of your people, in words that have no bearing on the subject matter, and that don't believe in the same things you do.

Sovereign Bones published by Nation Books and distributed in Canada by Publisher Group Canada is a collection of writings by contemporary Native American artists about what it's like to be an artist when your culture hasn't been yours for more than a century. It can't be "Indian" if it doesn't have braids, feathers, and buckskins riding a horse with mournful dignity into the sunset because today is a good day to die.

Anyone who does any creative work at all knows just how difficult it can be without any additional demands being made upon your already taxed brain. Can you imagine what it would be like to put your heart and soul into a painting, and be told that there is no such thing as contemporary art from your people? Artistically you only exist in the past as artefacts picked over by those who know that modern Indians have nothing to say; nothing to say that matches everybody's conception of what an Indian is anyway. Why doesn't your stuff look like other great Indian artists, like you know, Edward Curtis?

Actor's, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, fashion designers, and musicians alike have run into the wall of 'it's not Indian enough to be Indian', no matter how Indian they are. Indian men are noble stoic warriors or drunks who talk in short clipped sentences that are filled with meaning. Indian women are meek, and docile who over the centuries have been exploited by their lazy husbands, or beautiful Princesses waiting for the just the right European they can fall in love with for a little bit of that starred crossed lover stuff that can end tragically for all parties involved leaving everybody older and wiser. (It's okay to have your bit of fun with the pretty Indian girl, but don't bring her home to mother is the moral of that story)
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Yet in spite of this, or maybe if they're contrary enough, (it's no coincidence that in many traditions the creator is also a trickster who works in opposition to what makes sense), because of this, it hasn't stopped people from all nations from doing just what they are meant to do. Creating works of art that are about them and their people in the world around them, just like the rest of the world's artists.

Perhaps like Wayne Eagleboy's painting "We The People" near the beginning of this review they will make social political commentary? Perhaps like Shelly Niro's installation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pictured to the right), of "Skywoman", they will tell their traditional tales. But she hasn't used any feathers or buckskin, and what's with the turtle – where's the buffalo?

Buffalo never played any role in the life of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, or Iroquois Confederacy, in the woodlands north and south of the St. Lawrence River in what are now New York State, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Nor did men wear the full headdress of feathers; at least not until the 1950's and they wanted people to pay attention to them as Indians.

No one is surprised when they find out that German and French people have a history of different styles of dress, music, art, literature, and architecture, even though they share a common border. Yet these same people refuse to understand two distinct nations that live over a thousand miles apart can be just as different. From the food eaten, to the clothes they wore, the only thing the Lakota, or any of the other people from what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have in common with the Six Nations who are the Haudenosaunee, is they were conquered by Europeans.

Sovereign Bones is by turns heartbreaking, life affirming, inspiring, and most of all real. Each artist, no matter what their medium, relate what it is they are trying to do as artists, and what it's like to be an Indian artist today. The burden of recovering what is so close to be being lost forever has been placed squarely on their collective shoulders. To each of them falls the task of keeping alive the collective unconscence of their people in a world that doesn't recognize that differences between their people exist.

Maybe I can think of something that would be as difficult to cope with as an artist, but not right off the top of my head. It's hard enough as it is getting published without having to fight against other people's expectations of what my work should be like for it to be my work.

"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"..."Well", I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet." Sherman Alexie "The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007

December 4, 2007

Music Review: James Blood Ulmer Bad Blood In The City

For most people Hurricane Katrina ended when the winds died and the reporters left. For the people who once lived in the Ninth Ward district, and the other low-lying areas that were swamped by the floodwaters after the levees broke; the nightmare lives on. Predominantly African-American, all of them working poor or middle class with little or no safety net for disasters of this kind, they are scattered throughout the United States waiting for the word telling them they can return to their homes.

More and more it looks like it's a word that will never come. It turns out it's far cheaper to house people in temporary shelters and displaced person facilities (most countries use the term refugee camps – but you only have refugees in the Third World not in the United States of America) then to rebuild housing and infrastructure for folks who don't have money. In fact, now that the inhabitants of those areas have been forced to evacuate the governments at all levels are talking about the golden opportunity they have to revitalize the downtown core of New Orleans.

Instead of housing projects, neighbourhood bars, small businesses, and schools, they envision a Ninth Ward of convention centres, condominiums, resort style nightclubs, and fancy restaurants. It will all be lovingly restored for that authentic "New Orleans" feel, so the well heeled tourist will know what it "must have been really like". The only thing missing will be the people who gave New Orleans her heart and soul – her inhabitants.

With the mayor of New Orleans saying, why should we rebuild when no one is coming back to live here, and the former inhabitants saying, how can we live there when there is no place to live, the inevitable will happen. Temporary displacement will become permanent without anyone noticing and another piece of America's heart will be sold to the highest bidder. If you don't think that's possible, why has the Louisiana government already granted private charters to all but four of the schools that formally serviced the former Ninth Ward? They don't expect anybody to return.
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(Read the chapter on New Orleans and Katrina in Naomi Klein's most recent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism and it spells out in detail the plans that have been made for the former ninth ward. These aren't secret documents either – it's just nobody is talking about it. With an election year coming up would you want to run for President leading a party that's known for creating America's worst forced removal of her own citizens since the "Trail Of Tears"? Like the Cherokee before them, the citizens of New Orleans have been dispossessed of their homes, because when money talks the people walk.)

James Blood Ulmer hasn't forgotten about the people of New Orleans, as you can tell by the title of his recent release, Bad Blood In The City, on Hyena Records. With five of the eleven songs having titles that relate directly to the Hurricane, and the whole disc seething with barely suppressed tears and rage, it's obvious he's not willing to let anybody forget about it if he has any say in the matter.

James Blood Ulmer has only ever existed for me as a rumour of an incredibly gifted musician who has played everything from avant-garde Jazz, Blues, and Funk. Somehow, I've never picked up a recording of his until now, and this was only by a fluke. A company, Distribution Fusion III Inc. from Quebec Canada, who I'd written a review for a while back, sent me this disc in amongst a pile of others. My only regret is that's it has taken me this long to discover the magic of a James Blood Ulmer recording.

For starters there is his voice; beaten and strained as it is, showing the wear and tear of what appears to be years of trying to get the world to listen to truths that they would rather ignore, it still persists in tackling unpleasant topics, and speaking for those without a voice. Making no effort to hide deficiencies behind technology, James sings with the most abused word in music – soul.

For those who still think what groups like Hall & Oates play has anything to do with Soul, you won't recognise what you're hearing on Bad Blood In The City because the producer knows how to keep his hands to himself. Somebody who sings with Soul will be giving you a direct conduit to his or her heart without the need of soaring strings or production values to pluck tears from your eyes or put a smile on your lips.

Right from the first song on the disc, "Survivors Of The Hurricane", you can tell you're in for a trip that's out of the ordinary as soon as he Mr. Ulmer starts singing. It's a feeling that's reinforced by his guitar. If you can put your mind back to the days of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies recordings, when he was harnessing his power to the Blues, you'll have some indication of what the guitar work is like. It's said that when Jimi died James vowed to pick up the torch and play the guitar in his honour.
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When you hear him tearing up the atmosphere with his solos, you know that it wasn't a promise made lightly. It's not like listening to someone trying to play guitar like Hendrix – far too many guitar heroes in the world already thank you very much – instead it's as if he's taken the essence of what made Hendrix great and distilled it into his own playing. The result is dynamic and electrifying playing matching the comet trail blazed by Hendrix but never overlapping or following directly in his path.

Bad Blood In The City is full of the anger of the dispossessed and oppressed. In the years since the civil rights movement of the sixties, there has at least been an attempt to present the appearance of equality. However, in the last few years, voices have been growing increasingly strident in opposition affirmative action and other programs designed to offset hundreds of years of social imbalance. While some have expressed legitimate concerns, and there are some, the majority have been carefully coded messages designed to create an "us against them" environment.

When people like David Duke of Louisiana talked about protecting the rights of the majority, and ensuring white people get a fair shake, they were fanning flames that used to burn crosses on front lawns. But the more sophisticated, the ones who ensured that all of White America were able to see pictures of black people looting stores in New Orleans on national television (without mentioning that they had been left to die in the Super Dome while governments failed to provide even basic emergency relief) had a longer term goal. Depict them as lawless animals and nobody will give a shit what happens to them.

So now, when they talk of New Orleans rising Phoenix like out of the ashes of the Hurricane, nobody will care what happened to the folk who lived there. They were just a bunch of lawless black people, probably all hooked on crack, and now it will be safe for you and the kids to visit a New Orleans Theme Park because they've cleaned up the city.

James Blood Ulmer's voice might be tired, but he's not done fighting and that particular vision of New Orleans will never live to see the light of day if he has anything to do with it. There's a big lie being propagated about the Ninth Ward and it's up to all of us to combine voices with James. It's about time that government and business realize that human beings, no matter what their colour or race, cannot be considered an inconvenience anymore.

November 13, 2007

Blissful Ignorance

Anybody who has ever experienced the loss of someone they loved dearly probably understands the feeling of wondering why the world didn't come to a screeching halt with the person's death. How can it be business as usual when he's dead? What does it matter what the latest gossip is about some Hollywood or Bollywood star when she's dead?

Well that's how I feel all the time. How can people be so complacent in the face of what we are putting the planet and her people through? In North America I'd hazard a guess and say the nine out of ten people are somehow actively hastening the destruction. Every time one person climbs behind the wheel of an SUV to just drive around the city by themselves they are increasing the demand for fuel and replacing oxygen in the air with carbon dioxide.

How about living in a world where we reached critical mass in population years ago, but millions of people still believe that practicing birth control of any kind is sinful. Isn't it a worse sin to have children come into a world where they are not wanted or there isn't enough food to feed them? How many children die of starvation each day? How many are neglected, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused because there's nobody who cares anymore?

In 2005 the world watched in horror as first New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina that forced thousands upon thousands of people to become refugees. Three months latter the Indian Ocean exploded with tsunami that destroyed villages and coastal towns forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary camps and shelters. Concert were given, speeches were made, and money was raised to try and help the people in both locations rebuilt their lives.

Instead of housing being rebuilt and lives resurrected the land where fishing villages have stood for generations is being sold to developers to make hotel /condominium complexes that cater to the rich tourist trade. This government sanctioned land theft (a government official in India called it a "golden opportunity") is echoed in New Orleans where the city is refusing to repair any flood damage until people come home.

But how can people come home if they have no homes, and no infrastructure to serve them. According to Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine if the government has their way the people will never come home and the whole area will be converted into private housing well out of the range of it's original inhabitants' pocketbooks.

Is anybody keeping track of all the countries where we are killing each other? Iraq and Afghanistan of course come to mind first because we in the West are involved in those ones so they "merit" our attention. Does anybody remember the reason that George had for invading Iraq – Weapons of Mass Destruction that nobody has yet to find a trace of.

Has anybody asked why George is so determined to keep spending the lives of his citizens on a daily basis in Iraq? It wouldn't be because they haven't finished stripping the country of all her assets could it. That they aren't going to leave until they've sold off every scrap of useful property and service to the people who bought him power has become increasingly obvious to everybody but the United States public.

Over the years, North Americas have perfected the ability to be completely self-absorbed and ignorant of the world around them. Until of course the minute it affects them. We hide behind our gadgets and our noise so that we can't see or hear anything around us until its far too late and somebody flies an airplane into our buildings.

It's our behaviour out in the rest of the world, or at least the behaviour of those whom people take to be our representatives that goes a long way towards creating resentment. When the multinationals come in and strip mine a country of its natural resources the locals don't think too fondly of them or the country they come from.

Since they were allowed into the country in the first place because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made the government sell off nationally owned assets at a penny to the dollar there's bound to be a little local resentment. Especially since the IMF also makes governments stop spending money on infrastructure and social services like education and health.

Yet, I'm sure if you were to ask, the majority of people in North America would have no idea that the IMF policies worked to take money out of the countries they were supposed to be helping. If we don't become aware of what's being done by agencies in the control of our governments to other countries soon we won't understand why they are so upset with us half the time.

I don't believe I have any special powers, or am I super intelligent, but I try to keep myself up to date about what is happening in the world. Doing so makes me realize that while not on the verge of complete disaster, our situation is precarious. It also makes me want to walk down the street shaking people to let know that there is something beyond their iPods and iPhones that they need to start worrying about.

November 2, 2007

No More Conversations

Don't you just hate people who force themselves upon you when you want to be left alone? You're sitting somewhere reading a book or just taking some quiet time and they come tromping up and start yakking away at you without even asking if you want company. They assume because you are sitting by yourself that you need to be rescued from the misery of sitting alone.

Of course these are the same people who when asking, "How are you?" are really saying "I'm going to tell you about my life whether you like it or not". So not only do they interrupt your peace and solitude they then proceed to tell you in piteous tones about how horrible their life is. Once started nothing can dissuade them from their path either; you could get out your book and start reading it again and they would still assume that at least a part of you was paying attention to them.

When you finally surrender to the inevitable and get up to leave, they say with complete sincerity, "It was great talking with you". The fact that it should have been "talking at you" has of course completely escaped their notice. But then what did you expect; a conversation that ran two ways?

According to my friends at Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary a conversation is an informal talk with another or others. The key word in that sentence is in my opinion "with". Nowhere does it say anything about "an informal talk to" others where one party simply holds forth while all others are supposed to listen. I don't about anybody else but where I come from that sort of thing is called a lecture, or if you're being generous a monologue.

How many supposed conversations have you taken part in recently where your sole job is to be the listener? In fact if dare to interject your own opinion on a subject you're treated with a look that could cause paint to bubble and peal. If that weren't bad enough, there's the opposite end of the spectrum where your "opponent" treats a conversation like a game of chess, and he or she keep trying to outmanoeuvre you so they can win by ensuring they have the last word on every subject.

Of course there is also the more common non-conversation –conversation where everyone seems in competition to see who can say as little as possible using as many words as possible? These chats usually start with the common inanities about weather and never get much deeper then that. You might get some in depth commentary on the state of ring tones, or which camera phone is best but if you're looking for anything of substance... your best off looking elsewhere

It wouldn't be so bad if most of these conversations weren't carried out by intelligent people who have a lot on the ball and could probably offer intelligent perspectives on most of today's issues if they cared to. What's truly unfortunate is that far too many people have begun to believe that to show you're smart or even informed is a bad thing.

It used to be only women felt like they had to dumb themselves down in order not to scare the men in their lives. While some men have gotten over that particular fear, society itself seems to have come over all nervous about people with intelligence. While being obviously smart has never made anyone very popular, it never used to make you quite the object of scorn and ridicule that you are now a days. In fact being smart has almost been made out as some thing abnormal and dangerous. Hey the bad guys in movies are always evil geniuses who end up being "out smarted" by the simple, but right thinking, good guy.

Now with everything being played to the lowest common denominator, from popular culture to political policy, showing yourself to have a brain has become even less desirable. Understandably people don't want to make public displays of intelligence among their peer groups when there is the very real possibility of being ostracized.

I find it ironic that in these days of high tech communication where we can transmit messages instantaneously across thousands of miles that something as simple as talking the person beside you has become increasingly difficult. Maybe it's because we don't have as much human contact as we once did, or maybe it's because we have so many more things to pass the time with that we simply don't bother to develop the skills that allow us to communicate verbally – or practice them enough so that they are refined for use.

Whatever the reason all I know is that it's becoming harder and harder to find people who you can talk with. Conversations have become a thing of the past with people either using them as excuses for monologues or as vehicles to exchange inanities.

October 31, 2007

No Excuse For Addictions

You don't know how much of an asshole you've been as an addict until after you're well into recovery. It's one of the more crushing of the revelations you have to deal with when the scales finally drop from your eyes and you see just what a self-centred, whining, little git you've been. If it wasn't about you it hadn't mattered, and didn't everyone know that the world revolved around you anyway?

Oh there are all sorts of excuses for becoming an addict, I should know having used most of them with varying degrees of justification over the years, but there aren't any excuses for the behaviour and other shit that you did while addicted to whatever it was you needed to make your existence seem meaningful. It's amazing the rationale you can come up with for stealing anything you need to feed your habit, and the lies you tell yourself to pretend that it's not stealing.

I mean to replace this, I really will replace this money as soon as I'm able, I'm owed this money so it's not really stealing, look at all I do, if there were any justice in the world this would be my money anyway. Nothing like the self-righteous resentment of an addict, it allows you to justify anything.

Then of course there is the unpredictable behaviour of addicts. Talk to anybody who grew up the child of a drunk and they'll say one of the most vivid memories they have of childhood is being told to be quiet and not do anything that might upset the drunk. There's always the potential for violence when you're dealing with some drunks, and the not knowing, walking around on tender hooks when you're around them, is almost worse than any violence they might perpetrate.

I don't normally wallow in those parts of my life that I'm not proud of; it doesn't serve any purpose that I can see. I've always thought people who spend their time talking about what drunks and drug addicts they were still haven't recovered because they still want the world to revolve around them. Oh poor them they were drunks and we should all feel sorry for them.

As far as I'm concerned, the only people anyone should feel sorry for are the people who suffered because of their actions as a drunk or a drug addict. Nobody can say they didn't know what they were doing when they took their first drink, stuck that first needle in their arm or whatever. It was their choice to live like that and if they had wanted to stop they would have.

What, you think they had no control, that they couldn't stop? Anybody who tells you that is a liar. How do you think they stopped when they finally did? They did so because they were able to and chose to, not because anybody forced them to. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that usually the only way an addict stops is because of the most selfish act of all – self-preservation.

If they had cared about the effects of their action on the people they supposedly loved they would never ever have started in the first place, or at least stopped when they first realized the pain they were causing. So there is nothing saintly about anybody making the choice to go clean, and if anybody even implies otherwise they're lying. But as it's the only way most of us have of getting clean, I guess we should be grateful that at least one of our negative characteristics can be responsible for helping us to at least start to heal.

Making the decision to go clean is of course only the first step; you still have to do it after all and that's where things get difficult. Not just because of your own desires, cravings, wants, or whatever you want to call them, but because we have to live in one of the most addicted societies in the world. In fact, most of our economy is built upon the premise that we are addicted to the products that are produced by our manufacturing sector.

Every media outlet we watch, read, or, listen to is filled with advertisements trying to convince us why we should spend money on their product not somebody else's. All the commercials we hear act as though it's not a question as to whether you are going to spend money, if you have it or not, but to convince you to spend it on their version of

Of course than there's the way we treat the rest of the world, as if we are the be all and end all and everything revolves around us. Between Canada and the United States, we account for the most fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources used per capita annually and we produce the most non-biodegradable waste per person. Most of us don't even have the decency to be embarrassed by these facts, preferring to point out how environmentally conscious we are because we participate in our communities recycling programs and on Earth Day we pick up garbage in our neighbourhoods.

Of course, the rest of the world also has to give us everything we need to ensure that we can continue to live like we do. If they don' we'll just come and take it. Remember what I said about not wanting to piss off the drunken family member because of the potential for violence? Well the majority of the world treats us like we're that belligerent bully, trying to keep us appeased so we don't get mad at them and get violent. All they have to do is look at what we've done to Afghanistan and Iraq recently, and other places around the world prior to that, to have a fair idea of what happens to anyone who defies us.

One of the things they tell you when you stop drinking and doing drugs is your going to have to change the people you hang out with. You're going to discover that you're not going to have very much in common with them anyway. What's even harder then that to cope with though, is how much you have to change the way you live period in order to rid yourself of addictive behaviour.

There are no half measures, you can't just stop drinking or doing drugs and not deal with the behaviour that are characteristic of the addict. It means changing yourself significantly at a personal level in terms of the way you treat people and the world in general. You can no longer assume the position of being the centre of the universe, or act without thinking about the consequences of your actions.

Simply going from one day to the next without having a drink or doing drugs is not stopping being an addict; it's stopping drinking and doing drugs, which although admirable, hasn't done anything to cure you of the problems that started you doing them in the first place. It will only be by figuring out the root causes of your addiction that you'll be able to start dealing with the behaviour that is the result of being an addict.

There's never an excuse for being an addict, but there's always an explanation.

October 26, 2007

Canadian Politics: Intolerance Rising

When you witness a sudden change in the attitudes of a majority of people in your community it raises a number of questions. The first question you are bound to ask is how could so many people change their minds so fast. Perhaps what you should be asking yourself though is not why or how the change happened, but how much of a change was it really. What might have looked on the surface to be the truth about people's beliefs had no real depth and was as easily dispersed as topsoil in a dust bowl.

Canada has developed a reputation as being a tolerant country over the years and seemingly has some of the most liberal attitudes on issues of race, sexual identity, and gender discrimination. Ever since the implementation of the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1980 any legislation or activity that would allow for the discrimination of anyone based on race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual preferences have been successfully challenged and overturned.

When this has been combined with Canada's willingness to support progressive legislation in the health care field like supplying patients with medical marijuana and our former reputation as Nobel Prize for Peace winner because of peacekeeping efforts it certainly makes us appear to a kind and compassionate country. But there's a difference between what can be legislated and what are the genuine feelings of a people.

As long as people aren't confronted with situations that stretch there tolerances, they usually are able to live up to the laws of the land. Unfortunately, it looks like Canada's famous tolerance was only skin deep and at the first sign of trouble has up and vanished. Currently it's the ugly smell of racism mixed with xenophobia that's wafting around the halls of power and the streets of cities, towns, and villages.

It started innocently enough with Elections Canada, the government agency responsible for administering elections, declaring that Muslim women wouldn't have to remove their veil in order to vote, in spite of their being a new law in place requiring picture identification in order to vote. Elections Canada was willing to make an exception to this law in order to respect the traditions of devout Muslims if they did not feel comfortable revealing their faces in public.

In response Prime Minister Steven Harper came out and said he "profoundly disagreed with this decision" and that he hoped Elections Canada would change their mind. It was Harper's government that passed the new legislation, demanding visual identification of voters, so it's not surprising he'd object to the decision.

While in of itself this seems more like an etiquette decision, how to accommodate someone's religious beliefs in a situation where they come into conflict with the law, it should be asked why wasn't this issue considered when the legislation was being created. Secondly, in the past when this type of conflict has arisen, governments have acted with a little more flexibility then Stephen Harper is it this situation.

When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) first started taking Sikhs on as officers, it was decided that they could wear their turbans instead of the regular headgear, as it would not interfere with their ability to do their job. On the other hand Sikhs who took construction jobs would have to wear a hard had. Instead of showing any sensitivity to the needs of another's religious belief, and trying to find a compromise like was achieved in the case of Sikhs, it can only be all or nothing for Mr. Harper.

Of course as is the case with most politics, there is a subtext that might help explain his stance and the lack of anything being said by the opposition in answer to his statement. It has to do with the current political situation in Quebec, where they are experiencing a sharp increase in xenophobia. When the small town of Herouxville Quebec passed bylaws prohibiting the wearing of the bukra, and stoning as forms of punishment, just in case they ever had to deal with hoards of Muslim immigrants, they were looked upon as a group of intolerable red neck bigots.

But, in the last provincial election, the party who ran on a nationalistic/protect us from the immigrants/ platform ended up in opposition in a minority government situation. Although the Premier spoke out against xenophobia he formed a commission of inquiry to go from community to community to let these bigots have their say in public. So now, all levels of government feel like they have to try and appease these folks and reassure them that if the Muslims invade Quebec disguised as immigrants looking for a better life, they won't be given any special treatment.

Did I mention that there were three seats being contested in by-elections in Quebec right about now as well? Do you think that may have anything to do with any of these signals being sent out to the ultra nationalists in Quebec?

While the whole issue of whether an Islamic women be asked to remove her veil for identification purposes before voting may seem trivial. (We never had to produce any identification at all to vote in Canada except proof that you were on the voters list and that makes me wonder about the validity of the new law requesting ID anyway) However, against the new background of fear mongering and xenophobia that is beginning to fester in Quebec and elsewhere it takes on the appearance of being a symptom of a growing intolerance to anybody who is different.

What kind of message do we send when even the slightest accommodation for another's religious practices is called wrong? Where has our tolerance gone for another person's differences, or did they even exist in the first place? Fear of something because you don't understand it is the behaviour of a coward, and intolerance is the coward's defence against fear. Are we a country of cowards?

October 16, 2007

Willing And Disabled

When someone says they are disabled what does that make you think? Do you automatically get a vision of a person who is confined to a wheelchair? What do you think if you meet a person who has been described as suffering from a disability but they have nothing discernibly wrong with them?

Do you find yourself stealing glances at them when they're not looking to see if you can spot what's wrong with them? Like they might have an extra arm they've secreted around their person, or some other sort of deformity that you failed to notice at first glance? Do you talk to them slowly and in short sentences because maybe they suffer from a mental deficiency that has robbed them of some of their intellect? Or, do you worry that they are suffering from a mental illness and every time they laugh you check them for hysterics or other signs of an unstable mind?

When you suffer from a chronic condition that is disabling to the extent that you can't work, but that hasn't incapacitated you completely, you get used to a wide variety of reactions. I get the feeling that some folk are disappointed on meeting me when they discover that I look like a reasonable facsimile of normal. I'm not missing any limbs, nor am I in a wheelchair, foaming at the mouth, falling down in fits, or bursting into tears inconsolably for no reason what so ever.

If you meet me at home the only thing you'd notice out of the ordinary is that I don't seem to be able to sit for any length of time, or that I spend a lot of time stretched out in bed. Other than that, around the house I don't seem any less capable then the next person. Of course you don't know that I haven't been able to get into a shower for close to five years on my own, or any of the other things that happen behind the scenes that are the result of my symptoms.

To be fair I'm just as capable of forgetting myself as they are of misinterpreting my appearance. When you've established a routine that allows you to utilize what few resources you have to maximum efficiency it can be easy to forget that you suffer from limitations. It's only when you push the boundaries of your comfort level that you are forcibly reminded that you are disabled.

What's really upsetting is that no matter how many times this happens, each time is as unpleasant as it was the first time. Somehow or other I forget the previous experiences and suffer through the disappointment and frustration of the failure with the same intensity. It could be something as simple as not resting in the afternoon for a couple days in a row and forgetting what happens as a result, or the difference between writing while sitting up at a desk and lying in bed writing on my laptop that shoves my face in it.

It doesn't matter what the cause is, because the result is the same, and it takes a number of days to recover both physically and psychologically enough to get back on that even keel where I look "normal". While the body doesn't usually take any more time to heal from one occasion to another, the head is another story. The less it takes to remind me of my disability, the harder it is to overcome it's debilitating effects psychologically.

As I have a chronic pain condition caused by damage to the muscle wall of my pelvis, there is normally a direct correlation between the amount of physical activity I do and the amount of pain that I'm in. When I can logically tell myself that I'm feeling worse today then yesterday because of what I did I have no trouble accepting the consequences, and can usually believe I'll be better in a day or two.

But sometimes there is no logical reason that I can see for the pain to increase, and in those circumstances the feelings of frustration are such that it is difficult to believe myself capable of accomplishing the simplest of tasks. That is a dangerous place to find myself in, because those times are when it would be easiest to surrender to the condition and let it define my life completely.

Nobody expects a disabled person to do anything; you're given an allowance by the government and pretty much forgotten about after that, except when they decide to check and see if you're still incapacitated. (As a friend of mine who had lost the majority of one hand in an industrial accident put it – they want to make sure my hand hasn't grown back) So, if I were to retire to my bed for the rest of my life to take analgesics and gradually turn into a vegetable I'd merely be fulfilling everyone's expectations.

People talk of acceptance, as in accepting your limitations or accepting who you are and your situation in life. But what you have to decide is what you are willing to accept. Since I'm not willing to accept the definition of disabled as being unable, while at the same time I can't say that I'm fully able, I have had to develop my own standard of what is acceptable.

The hardest thing to accept, and I still don't do a very good job of this, is that there are times when there will be rationale explanation for how I'm feeling. It won't matter if I had done barely anything or walked two miles the day before, and I'll still barely be able to get out of bed and need to take my pain medication on a regular basis. On those days, I have to accept that I can't do very much and that it would be foolish to make the effort and waste the energy.

At the same time, I have to accept that it will require a little extra effort on my part even on the good days to do the things that I want to. If I want to write, I will have to exert myself to focus through the pain, but learn how to pace myself so that I don't overdo it one day and end up unable to accomplish anything the next day. Since some days it's impossible to tell how difficult it will be to accomplish anything, I have to be willing to accept the fact that I could have to stop what I'm doing, whether I want to or not, at a moment's notice.

What it comes down to in the end is having the ability to accept the fact that I can't predict from day to day how I'm going to be, and that I have to accept whatever it is each day gives me, whether I like it or not. It's either that or become what most people imagine a disabled person to be; and that's unacceptable.

October 7, 2007

Care? Who Cares?

Do you ever wonder how much longer we're gong to be able to pretend that there's nothing wrong with the world? Let me be clear here, I'm not just pointing my finger at the West or American here; I'm talking all of us. From the politburo in China, to Whitehall in England, from The Hague, to the Black Sea, from The Amazon Basin to The Outback, and everywhere in between and all around.

We've got business interests making as much money as they possibly can this very minute every, and anywhere. They don't care if they use ten your old girls in their factories or if they're selling those same girls as whores to wealthy clients, it's all money. People like stone washed jeans so we will strip mine pumice from mountains, use sulphuric acid to separate out the impurities, and make lots of money from the jeans for the year they are fashionable.

The factory fishing boats pulled up to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and filled up their holds with fish, canned them and started all over again. Who needs a catch limit – the fish won't run out. In Japan and Northern Ontario paper companies used the nice clean water of the rivers rushing by their factories to help clean out the giant presses and they did a great job of washing the mercury out of the equipment and into the water system. It's okay though because the water is moving so it will clean itself.

The International Monetary Fund decides to give one of the deserving countries in Africa a helping hand instead of a handout. All they have to do is be a little financially responsible and they will get their loan. Cutting all social spending is a good start – people who never had education or health care aren't going to miss it anyway are they? Oh and you can't block foreign companies from owning your national resources either - it's a global economy now don't you know?

Oh and not to worry if you think you're going to having problems making your interest payments on time – you'd be surprised how few things really are essential services. Who needs roads to all these isolated areas – no body goes there do they? With so few people, having indoor washroom facilities why do you need to build sewers anyway? It's just wasting the money you could be using to pay the interest on the loan. See it's easy if you just use common sense.

There're people dying by the thousands if not millions in Africa from the spread of HIV/AIDS but we can't corrupt their morals by offering them condoms to help stop the spread of disease. Giving prostitutes condoms to hand out to their clients for protection will encourage them to have sex out of wedlock instead of waiting for Mr. Right to come along like they should.

Anyway, it's Africa, and people are always dying of something there; this country has a civil war, that country has a famine, and despots rule the rest anyway. It's not as if they have contributed anything to the world except refugees and starving mouths to feed so it's no big loss. Between Europe and North America most of the oil, gold, and other valuable natural resources have been locked up for the next few decades already – without the slave trade there's not much else of value left.

The increases in severe weather systems don't need to be a cause for alarm, instead they should be thought of as opportunities for change. Look what happened after the tsunami in South East Asia; all those messy fishing shacks and villages were washed away and new fancy hotel and condominium complexes have come up in their place.

Instead of having to perform the back breaking labour of fishing and living without electricity and running water, the former fishermen and their families now have nice clean service industry jobs and live in apartment blocks with all the amenities in one room. Some of them had never even seen a television or lived above ground level before if you can believe that...?

There's only so long I can even write like that without feeling sick to my stomach. I hope to God that there aren't people out there who still think like that. I have a sick feeling that there are more of them then I want to know about, and that far too many have positions of power.

There aren't many days that something doesn't strike me about our outrageous hubris in thinking that just because we as human's do something it's the right thing to do. There're the idiots who call themselves environmentalists because they move into a desert environment and proceed to plant trees. The fact that they are messing with one of the most delicate ecosystems in the world by introducing something with the deep thirsty root system of a maple or other deciduous tree that disrupts the water table escapes them completely.

That sort of behaviour may not appear like much to some of you, but it's an indication of just how thoughtless we've become. If we care that little about where we live, how are we going to be able to care about someone else's life and where they live? If we can't get it together soon and stop pretending that everything's okay everything could start falling apart at the seams. Another couple of Katrina's or another tsunami or two and not only will the cracks start showing, but the walls will start coming down.

Then we're all going to have to get used to living without electricity or running water

September 29, 2007

Confessions Of A Review-A-Holic

Somehow or other, without noticing, I've become something that I never even considered possible: a reviewer. When I first started out writing for Blogcritics.org back in July of 2005 it was for the opportunity it provided for my writing to be seen by a wider audience, and to hopefully generate some interest in my own site.

It took a while for me to get comfortable with doing things the way someone else wanted. I eventually clued in that there was probably a good reason for keeping spelling mistakes and typos to a minimum, and that you could have a distinctive voice without run on sentences. There might still be a sizable gap on occasion between understanding and implementation, but at least I started heading in the right direction.

When I began realizing there were only so many articles that you could write trying to change the world before the sound of your own voice starts to grate in your own ear –heaven only knows what it was doing to other ears – is when I knew it was time for a change. Due to a gag reflex problem I knew writing about celebrities or heart warming human-interest stories was out of the question, so I'd have to find something else.

As the universe does revolve around me, I knew that people would be only too fascinated to read about my efforts as a novelist. Who wouldn't be thrilled to read about what a first-time author had to say about the process of writing? Once I had got that piece of conceit out of my system – and it went on for an embarrassing long period of time, culminating in me even having the nerve to publish the collected articles at Lulu.com. I was back to square one again, looking for things to write about aside from my life and me.

I had been lucky enough to have some health issues able to provide decent fodder for a few articles without sounding overly self-serving or pitying, but unless I kept developing new and interesting symptoms that was a finite topic of conversation. Up until then I had taken only sporadic notice of the material companies sent into Blogcritics for review on its pages, so I decided to start checking those listings out on a regular basis to see if that offered what I was looking for.

I thought I had known what cutthroat was, but that was before I started competing with my fellow Blogcritic contributors for review material. I also quickly realized that being on dial-up and having an old slow computer meant that I was at a disadvantage. Unless I got blind lucky I would never be able to get my hands on any material that was in high demand.

I took to waiting until after the initial feeding frenzy was over when new material was put on offer and come in after to pick up any juicy looking leftovers. That ended up working out well for me as my tastes have never been inclined towards the popular and others' discards were my meat and potatoes.

I started out doing one or two reviews a week initially, but that soon began to prove insufficiently gratifying. I began exploring the possibilities of obtaining review material on my own from various publishers and music producers. My timing seemed to be awesome, as many book publishers were just starting to use the Internet as a means of publicity on a full time basis. Using the credibility of Blogcritics I was able to start establishing connections with book publishers all across North America, and specifically the Canadian versions of Random House and Penguin.

At the same time, I was also building a network of contacts among music distributors and publicists. From those innocent beginnings have grown a monster that I no longer control: CDs, books, and DVDs show up at my door on an almost daily basis. Some of them from people I've never heard of who have grabbed my name and contact information from somebody else, but the majority is stuff I've requested.

It is highly possible that I can have five or six books, seven or eight CDs, and a few DVDs in piles around my bed waiting for me to read, listen, or watch, and then write about. Unless something is abjectly horrible I will read, listen, or watch the whole thing because I can't conceive of being able to give it a half way decent critique otherwise. You just never know what someone might be saving for the last act anyway that might serve as redemption for the soul destroying shit they had served up until that point.

I love reading, listening to great music, and watching interesting movies and concert footage, and I never want to get to the point where I'm even tempted to start skimming material for the sake of posting a review. Maybe before it even gets to the point where I even consider doing that, I should start cutting back – not offering to review so many items from the Blogcritic list, or not going to publisher's web sites and selecting five or six titles from each of their upcoming releases list.

Except every time I say I'm going to do that everybody gangs up on me from my favourite authors to the most interesting musicians and exciting filmmakers. They all decide to release items simultaneously and I find my resolve weakening. I've tried limiting how many I take from each list, but one is never enough. There's always something I know I will regret not reading, listening to, or watching.

I have to face facts, I'm not the type of person who can review just one item and leave it at that, it's as many as possible or nothing at all. Nothing can match the thrill of a new book showing up at my door, or ripping the wrapping off a new DVD or CD that very few people have heard. (Now there're even personalized review copies from some record companies – I know it's to prevent you from uploading them and selling the tracks online but I still think it's cool to get a CD with my name on it)

They always say that the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting that you have one publicly, and I can't think of a better place to come clean than this. My name is Richard Marcus, I'm a review –a –holic, and it's been twelve hours since I last reviewed.

If you'll excuse me, I have a book that came in the mail today that I have to read...

September 18, 2007

Music Review: The Weavers The Weavers

Whenever I read or hear the words "Folk Revival" I have to chortle; what exactly was it supposed to have been reviving from? Folk music has been around as long as there have been folk to sing it. From the first bards and minstrels singing the stories of the heroes of the great sagas of the Norse, Irish, and others long before we were writing our stories on the page.

How else were the original stories told if not to music? Look at examples of folk music throughout history and you will find that the songs are always about something. Whether it's a sad love story like "Barbara Allen" or a song commemorating a battle won or lost, folk musicians have a long history of being the raconteurs of both current and past events.

The only revival that folk music might have gone through in the twentieth century was when the people who performed it were allowed to get on with their lives after spending most of the 1950's being black listed from performing. The House Committee on Un American Activities under that champion of freedom and justice Jo McCarthy had stolen their right to sing because they had the nerve to sing the truth in their music.

Of course there has been a long history of the establishment doing it's best to silence the voices who set the people's stories to song and music. Joe Hill is not just the name of a song; he was a singer and a songwriter in the early years of the twentieth century who wrote about conditions in the mines and lumber camps of the west. For his troubles he was shot and killed by the Salt Lake police force on a trumped up murder charge.

Telling the truth has always been a dangerous profession in our democratic society, especially if your truth differs from the official line that's offered in the textbooks and government records. According to those histories the people who fought and died so that your children aren't forced to work in mine shafts for 18 hours a day and so you don't have to work 80 hour a week never existed or at best were agitators who the heroic Pinkerton employees had to put down in order to preserve democracy.

Thankfully, there were some brave people who kept the oral tradition alive and sang the songs that told the true history of the people of North America not just the businessmen and their generals. Even when they were blacklisted, they found ways around being silenced by not performing under their own names, or by becoming members of a larger orchestra.
weavers.jpg
Listen to some early recordings of the wonderful group The Weavers and you might be puzzled as to why the songs are being played with lush strings and sound like they should be sung in a Las Vegas nightclub. It's a variation on the there is safety in numbers routine and through it they were able to accomplish a couple of things; get recording contracts and stay off the blacklists.

For a while it became fashionable to make disparaging comments about The Weavers, dismissing them as old liberals who weren't radical enough. The people who made those comments were as blind and ignorant as those who tried to silence the Weavers. It also showed they had no understanding of what folk music really is. Why don't they sing more "political music", instead of these songs about "Irene" and from other countries?

Well because The Weavers weren't blinkered by political expediency, and the only agenda they followed was a commitment to the music they played. If you haven't listened to them in a while and have forgotten just how incredible they were you're in luck. As part of their Vanguard Visionaries series Vanguard records has released The Weavers, a ten song compilation that makes a great attempt at sampling each aspect of the group's character.

Long before anyway had even come up the term "World Music" The Weavers were singing the songs of folk from all different parts of the world. "Winoweh" from South Africa, "Guantanamera" from Cuba, and "Tzena Tzena" from Israel were all staples elements of any Weavers performance. Those three were just their most popular international folk songs; they played many more then that.

People today can say what they want about diversity, but the Weavers were preaching cultural diversity in the days when America was still racially segregated and even singing in a foreign language made you politically suspect. They didn't make a big deal out of it either or do it to look important – they were folk musicians so they played the music of the folk – and it didn't matter where those folk came from.

Their biggest source for music remained America, but here again they didn't take the easy route out. Songs about unions might have been dated and too dangerous to play in the fifties and early sixties, but what they chose to play instead was nearly as dangerous. Three of the ten tracks on this recording all came from the pen or guitar of Black singer songwriter Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Ledbelly) including "Goodnight Irene", "Midnight Special", and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine".

A fourth song included on this disc, "House Of The Rising Sun" is another song that originated with Black musicians. That might not mean much to us these days, but when people were being chased off stage or condemned for playing rock and roll because it was Black music (and they wouldn't have used the word Black believe me) playing music originally written by Black songwriters was seen as a provocative act.

But to The Weavers it was no different then playing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", Lee Hayes and Pete Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer", or any of the other songs they were identified with. When it came to music they were genuinely, colour blind. Their criteria for a song making their set list appears to have been based on it being somebody's story; the music of folk from anywhere in the world.

If it wasn't for the bravery of Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and Lee Hayes, better known to the world as The Weavers, being willing to open doors that fear and suspicion had kept walled up for years, who knows if the careers of people like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan would have even been possible. Listening to The Weavers on Vanguard Records is a small reminder of who and what this group stood for. It's a timely reminder of the importance of being brave enough to speak and sing unpopular truths in times when those voices are hard to find.

September 12, 2007

Terror Is As Terror Does

I remember having a conversation with the mother of one of my acting students back in the early nineties about how easy it would be to become a terrorist. She worked with abused children in a custodial treatment centre, meaning these were children under the age of fourteen who had to be kept under lock and key because they were considered uncontrollable.

One eight year old boy had burnt down the house he lived in, and his mother had woken up to find him standing beside her with a knife, and had only just missed being fatally wounded. As it was she ended up in hospital with a punctured lung and her son had ended up at this facility. The boy had been sexually abused first by his father, and then by one of the mother's boy friends.

In it's wisdom the government of the province where I live decided that these children didn't need a separate facility and could be housed within a wing of an adult facility. It was all about cutting costs so they could give tax breaks to their wealthy buddies of course. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with these kids that a little taste of the belt wouldn't take care of - single moms was what the real problem was of course. They let their kids run wild while they get drunk, do drugs, cheat the welfare system, and screw anything in pants.

After another week of fighting that attitude while trying to save the facility, she said there were times she just felt like putting a bomb in a mail box.

"The only thing stopping me is the fact that somebody's kids are going to be walking by that mail box. I know how devastated I would be if my kids were killed, and I could never do that to another person."

There was a flatness in her eyes brought on by more then just physical exhaustion. It was as if everything she had believed in had been torn out from under her and the ground under her feet was no longer certain. Bombs might not have changed anything, but they sure would have provided her with a type of certainty. Thankfully, it wasn't the type she was looking for.

Unfortunately, the certainty of violence is a good fit for far too many people. Blowing somebody up is one way of making sure you get the last word in an argument. There's no need for messy ambiguities about who is in the right and who is in the wrong if the other person is lying dead on the floor with.

These days it seems that everybody who has a point to make does so by blowing things up. The problem is that instead of solving anything, each time it happens situations just get worse. From the suicide bomber blowing him or herself up in a crowded market place to an invading and occupying army fighting insurgency, nobody seems to be getting any closer to resolving any of the disputes that have been the supposed cause of the violence.

Of course it's pretty hard to listen to anyone when you're busy blowing things up. "Eh, sorry could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the tomahawk missile going off." Conversely, no one is going to be listening too closely when they're dodging the hundredweight of nails that have been sent firing across a market place either. Dispute resolution works a lot better if you at least attempt to hear the other person talking.

Terror is in the eye of the beholder of course; one man's freedom fighter has always been another man' terrorist, it simply depends where your vested interests lie. To the British the guys throwing the bales of tea into Boston harbour were terrorists of a kind, while to the colonists at the time they were brave heroes. But no matter who the bad guy is and who the good guy is, when you come right down to it violence is violence no matter who sanctions it.

To the people living in Baghdad when the bombs were falling the Americans were just as much terrorists as the people who flew the jets into the World Trade Centre were to the American public. People on the receiving of bombs and explosions don't really give a damn about politics or justifications. When your home is in ruins and members of your family have been killed and wounded everything else is irrelevant.

Violence is the first resort of the coward and the last resort of the brave. The problem is that most of our leaders are cowards and liars. If Osama Bin Laden put the energy and money he puts into terrorism into building schools and farms in Afghanistan he would be securing his people a much better future then the one he's paying for now with their lives.

If George Bush and his allies really wanted to wage war on terrorism they could start by not propping up governments around the around the world that treat people like dirt. They could also stop insisting that International Monetary Loans be conditional on practices guaranteed to keep countries in perpetual poverty, and they could spend a fraction of the money the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is costing to do what's ever necessary to help eradicate the conditions that create willing followers for terrorist leaders.

Everybody is far too willing to see weapons and violence as the solutions to their problems, but every time one person picks up a gun, somebody else responds in kind. Until one person is brave enough to put down the weapons and hold out an empty hand, mothers will keep losing their children.

I fail to see how that is making the world a better place for anyone.

September 10, 2007

DVD Review: Cracker: A New Terror

If there's anything worse then having been a soldier in a war and seeing friends getting killed, it's being made to think nobody really gives a damn about them. Whether you agreed with it or not the British army fought in Ireland for years and years and suffered substantial casualties. The soldiers weren't necessarily there because they wanted to be, but there they were and they were killed regardless of their opinion.

What must have been so galling to them was that the people they were fighting were terrorists who had no qualms about blowing up women and children who were removed from the war zone but most people seemed to forget that bit. Especially in America where there were no end of people willing to drop some money in a bucket to send off to the boys in Ireland. Do those people ever wonder how many people the bombs they paid for killed in London?

So, these soldiers were fighting terrorists for years and years and nobody gave a rat's ass. But all of a sudden terrorists attack mainland United States and everybody, including the British government, is willing to spend millions of dollars, implement stringent anti-terrorist legislation, and invade not just one, but two countries half-way around the world, all in the name of "The War On Terror"

If you had been a British soldier who had fought the IRA in Northern Ireland wouldn't you be feeling just a little bitter. Maybe even a tad cynical. If you were still having flashbacks because of what you'd been through, and now television is full of images of much the same shit, might that just push you over the edge?
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In Cracker: A New Terror, a specially filmed final episode of the great British crime series, that scenario comes to life. Being released on DVD at the end of September by Acorn Media Robbie Coltrane brings the irascible police psychologist, Dr. Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald out of retirement to help the Manchester City Police solve a particularly nasty murder. Fitz and his wife are in town for the first time in ten years for their daughter's wedding when one of his former colleagues asks for an assist.

A young American comic had been brutally murdered in a nightclub's bathroom after his performance. There is the possibility of a witness, but unfortunately he's going to be reluctant to speak to the police as he had just stolen a wallet that night and is a junkie. The witness becomes even more important when the murder strikes again, this time a family friend of the young man.

Another reluctant witness, this time a woman having an affair with the second victim, is convinced by Fitz it would be in the best interests of her marriage to tell the police everything she knows. In other words, he threatens to phone her husband to tell him his wife was banging someone who was murdered while she was in the next room showering. It's surprising how quickly that jogs her memory.

Fitz is still the bull in a china shop that he was before he retired and moved to Australia when it comes to his family life and social situations. He gets drunk and embarrassing at his daughter's wedding, insulting the groom, and taking the piss of (jerking his chain) the groom's father. But it's his willingness to ignore his family while on vacation and do police work that especially compromises his relationship with his wife.

As the audience we know all along who the killer is and we see and understand what triggers him each time. He's one of the aforementioned veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the worst of the fighting. Everywhere we go with him, televisions are blaring out the latest news from Iraq. Reports of British soldiers being attacked, and sanctimonious quotes from George Bush and Tony Blair about the importance of fighting terrorism loop as an endless background litany reminding him of how he and his dead friends have been forgotten. Even the memorial garden honouring those British soldiers who died in Northern Ireland is to be closed because money can no longer be found for its upkeep.

It's enough to make you want to kill somebody. The script and the acting are so amazing that you really understand and sympathise with him. Quite frankly of the people he killed the comic may not have deserved to die, making fun of British soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland in his routine sealed his fate, but the friend of the family was such an unsympathetic asshole that you can't believe anyone would miss him.

He was the type of guy who pleads for mercy because of his wife and kids, right after he'd been caught screwing someone else's wife. Ranks right up there with begging a judge for clemency because you're an orphan after you've murdered your parents in terms of trying to earn sympathy points. The thing is, that still doesn't give anybody the right to murder him. Our ex-soldier can try and earn our sympathy all he wants, but that still doesn't change the fact he murdered people who had nothing to do with his problems.

He'd been a cop for a number of years already meaning his tour of duty in Northern Ireland was a number of years ago and he's known about the flashbacks all along but chosen not to do anything about them. His wife asks him to seek help and he refuses to believe that anyone can help him. Ultimately he makes the decision to be the person he is, a person who kills people if they piss him off.

When taken in that light his claim that he only did it because he was too much of a coward to kill himself is just an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. In the end, he's just as bad as any terrorist who uses "the cause" as an excuse for killing people who have nothing to do with the "war" they are fighting.

That's the beauty of this show, nothing is black and white, and the greys are even murkier. It makes for a wonderful contrast played out against the backdrop of certainty as proselytised by George Bush and Tony Blair through the media. Even our good guy, Robbie Coltrane's Fitzgerald, is a walking compendium of flaws. Aside from being an alcoholic, he's an egotist of the first order.

He knows his wife is against him getting involved with helping the Manchester Police while they are there on holiday, but he does so anyway. Even worse, he lets her and their youngest son fly back to Australia without him. Everything is about him and feeding his ego and his need to prove himself useful. Perhaps it's not surprising that before he agrees to help the police he suffers from and episode of erectile dysfunction. But as with all self-strokers who choose to pleasure themselves at the expense of another's happiness, he ends up alone.

There are no spoilers to give away in Cracker: A New Terror as far as the plot is concerned, we are in on it from the start. What there is to watch is a tautly written, and magnificently acted crime show with little gore, minimal violence, and a plot that's not about strange mysterious forces out to destroy our wonderful way of life. This is a very human drama, about a severely troubled individual who was damaged by an act of unspeakable inhumanity.

If you're looking for a message in Cracker: A New Terror I would say it was you don't heal from that type of damage by inflicting it upon others, it only makes it worse and increases the chances of other people reacting in the same way. That's a message we could all do with learning, don't you think?

The DVD includes the usual making of special feature, but this one is a little more detailed as it does give you a good history of the series right from the start. Interview subjects include Robbie Coltrane, the writer, and the director. It's a wide screen edition and comes with the option of 5.1 surround sound, which in this case helps because of the unusual amounts of background sound.

September 3, 2007

DVD Review: Prime Suspect: The Final Act

Who wouldn't want to be a cop? Look at all the great fringe benefits; long hours, high stress, low pay, little or no public or political appreciation, danger, and brutal on the personal life. That's not to mention the chance to see the worst that society has to offer in the way of what people do to each other: murder, rape, assault, robbery, and any and all combinations of the above.

Who wouldn't want to be a woman cop? Not only do you get the same package deal of benefits that your male colleagues have to deal with you get some lovely added bonuses. There's everyone's preconception of women in uniform to deal with, and of course resentment from fellow officers if you get promoted before they do ("It's only because she's a woman"). Not to mention if you so much as dare to act human and react to a brutal crime scene you'll never hear the end of it, ("See, women – can't take it when the going gets rough"). But worst of all is knowing that no matter how good you are promotions will always be limited because of the glass ceiling that "doesn't exist".

When police forces across North America were forced to change minimum height requirements for officers that had effectively prevented women, and other visible minorities, from obtaining membership in the club, there was lots of speculation from certain areas about whether women could make effective cops. Instead of wondering how women could have a positive influence on policing, all anybody was concerned with was whether they would be tough enough to stand up to the rigours of the job.
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Instead of being allowed to bring themselves to the job at hand, women were forced to try and be imitations of their male colleagues. It's as if gender held the secret for being a good cop, and if you didn't have your own set of testicles you'd better borrow some quick. Image then, how difficult it must have been for women when they first started having to give orders to men.

In the British television police drama Prime Suspect: The Final Act available on DVD from Acorn Media in early September 07, Detective Superintendent (DSI) Jane Tennison is on the verge of retirement after more then thirty years as a police officer in England. It's been one battle after another with the men who she has answered to and those she has supervised. Although she has at least played the game to a draw, it hasn't been without cost to her personally. Alienated from her family, an alcoholic, and single, she faces the prospect of a bleak retirement.

When a fourteen-year-old girl is reported missing, and her stabbed body is found on the heath, Tennison is determined to solve this last case before she retires. Complicating matters is the fact that her father is admitted to hospital and is discovered to have inoperable cancer and given little or no time to live.

As the case deepens and suspects are found and discarded Jane's drinking reaches the point where she is threatened with being removed from the case and pushed out the door early. It would be an ignoble ending to a distinguished career, and perhaps it's the thought of seeing it all go for nought that pushes her into attending Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time. Or perhaps it's the fact that she gets to see herself through the eyes of another for a change.

In the course of the investigation, she becomes friendly with the deceased girl's close friend April, and sees her reflection in the eyes of the younger woman. As the case winds itself down to its sordid and bitter conclusion Jane has begun the process of making peace with herself, and although retirement will be a long tough haul for her, she at least has something to work on, herself.

Long before she was famous for being a Calendar Girl or the Queen of England, Helen Mirren created the role of DSI Jane Tennison. Her performance throughout Prime Suspect has always been exemplary, but like all the best performers, she has held something back for the last hurrah.

There's a fine art to television acting involving subtlety and restraint. To be able to create a character as complex as DSI Jane Tennison, and then to bring her to life as completely as Mirren manages to do is an accomplishment that very few will ever be able to equal. In "The Final Act" we watch Mirren take Tennison to the very edge of the abyss of self destruction and draw herself back from the precipice before falling.

There are none of the histrionics that we would see from a lesser actor or production. No scenes of flying booze bottles or tearful confessions, instead we watch the character trying to act like nothing untoward is happening. However, that's not very easy to carry off when she suffers from a black out and forgets the call that notifies her about the girl going missing.

Everything about this show is brilliant though, not just Mirren's performance. The opening sequence of the girl's parents running through the streets to the house of their daughter's friend April, hopping to hear something positive, let's you know something horrible has happened. In some ways the image of two people pelting through the streets while all around proceeds normally reminded me of how people feel when someone dies and somehow the world acts like nothing horrible has happened.

That one scene captured those feelings of isolation and alienation far better than pages of dialogue could ever have described it. It's a perfect example of how to make use of the camera in television or film to communicate feelings and circumstance. For me that one shot sums up the standard of excellence that this production always strove to maintain.

Prime Suspect: The Final Act is the amazing conclusion to a spectacular television series, featuring superlative performances by all cast members, but especially Helen Mirren. The two-disc DVD set is a Widescreen edition with 5.1-surround, Dolby digital, sound. It also includes a fifty-minute, making of the series feature as a bonus. Don't worry if you've not seen any previous episodes, it won't matter. Brilliant television is brilliant television and you don't need to know more then that.

August 2, 2007

All The Unknown Soldiers

I met a soldier the other day. He was driving a cab so he was really a retired soldier. He had only recently retired, signing up when he was seventeen and staying in for twenty-eight years put him at around the same age as me. My wife and I had been out and became overtired so we decided to take a cab home. It just so happened to be his cab.

You know how it is with cab rides, sometimes you'd wish the cabbie would shut up about his opinions on the world, other times they just grunt no matter what you say. But sometimes you actually get talking and have a conversation, which is what happened this time.

Somehow it came up that he only drove cab as something to do so he wouldn't go crazy sitting around the house because he was retired. Since he looked around our age I was curious as to what he could be retired from that he didn't need to work. How he could have had a full pension so young.

I remember him glancing at me sideways, and making the slightest of hesitations before saying what it was he had retired from. Thinking about what he would have seen beside him in his passenger seat, a skinny guy with long hair, maybe even an Indian, he might have wondered how him being a soldier would have gone over.

When he said he had been in for twenty-eight years I laughed and said 'you must have joined up when you were eighteen- and he gave an embarrassed smile and said no seventeen. We laughed some more and I said he still looked too young, and he said that the plastic surgery probably helped with that.

He had been in Kosovo and stepped on a land mine and it had blown off half his face; nothing like a little random violence to take all the fun out of an afternoon. 'Shit' I think I must have said 'Is that why you're out, medical discharge' He shook his head, 'I did another tour after that'.

Being curious I asked him where else he had served aside from Kosavo; the list read like a who's who of some of the hell holes of the world. Rwanda in 1994 when aside from a few under-equipped Canadian soldiers the world ignored what was happening until all that was left was the hand wringing. He was in Somalia as part of the international peace keeping force that went in to try and clean up after the American invasion.

He was wounded in Somalia as well; an eight year old stabbed him in the face through his jaw. I didn't ask him if it was the same side of his face that he had rebuilt from when he had stepped on a landmine. He was also part of the mission to Afghanistan, the first wave of Canadian soldiers who went in when we were still there to try and help rebuild the country after the ouster of the Taliban.

When I first moved to this city it took me a while to get used to seeing people in uniforms on the street and the occasional convoy of military vehicles driving by. Kingston Ontario is home to one of the largest military bases in Canada and has quite a large permanent military presence, perhaps around 10,000 people including families. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston is also one of the largest training facilities in the country, and it's routine for troops from all over Canada to be sent here in preparation for missions overseas, or for individuals and units to come here for special training courses.

Troops from CFB Kingston are usually the ones sent over first to set up the command and control centres for U.N. troops, as they are communications and engineering specialists. But there are plenty of grunts as well, infantry troops who are the backbone of any army.

Our cab driver had been infantry; entering as a private and working his way up to being sergeant by the time he left the forces. All five of his daughters, he told us, were also infantry but two of them were officers and one was just on the verge of graduating from Royal Military College (RMC), which is also in Kingston. (Canada's officer training facility – if your marks are good enough you can get a free top-notch university education in return for doing a five-year hitch in the military as a junior officer.

We laughed about how it must feel to have two, and soon to be three, daughters out ranking you, but I could see he was really proud of them. He was especially pleased that all five had decided to go into the infantry and told me that one of them was a marksman. He corrected himself "I guess I should say marksperson" with a smile.

'What about just calling them snipers" I asked, and he quickly said we don't use that term, and I caught an undercurrent of something from that – almost distaste for the word and what it meant. I skirted around it by saying something about Canada using British terminology.

Something had struck me about that conversation, him talking about his daughter being a marksperson. It sounded like women were seeing active duty on the front lines along side men. He confirmed that, the infantry had been fully integrated since 1988 he told me and he had served with women in combat lots of times in places all over the world.

The military live apart from the civilian population in Kingston, even the students from RMC are sequestered. Only the officers or single enlisted people can afford housing off base and most families live in the semidetached living quarters available to married enlisted soldiers.

I wonder if there are any women soldiers who have non-military husbands? Do they join wives' support groups when their spouses are over seas? Do they hold regular jobs like other husbands, or because their wife is off in battle they stay at home and take care of the kids? I wonder how those marriages work out and how many end in divorse.

We know so little about the men and women who we send overseas. The only time they become people is when they are killed. Then we find out they had wives and children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters just like the rest of us. Oh I know you'll see the occasional picture in the newspaper of a wife and young child kissing their husband/father good-bye before they board their transport plane.

But by then it's too late to get to know them and it's just another photo opportunity to make us feel some sort of false emotion that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. We don't know what they are really feeling or anything about that family group at all. Maybe she wanted him to de mobilize after the baby was born – or at least apply for a non-combat role. They could have even fought about it, their last night together for who knows how long.

We only learn their names when they come back in their flag draped coffins and then they get to provide a sound bite for politicians. They've either paid "the supreme sacrifice" or had their lives thrown away for no reason; it all depends on whose doing the talking.

It's easy to blame the government because it's their policy that's getting the young men and women killed, but really we are responsible because we let them do it.. A politician only cares about getting re-elected and if you make that look seriously threatened you'd be amazed at how quickly they'd see the light.

We let our governments send these people overseas to be killed and it's far easier for all of us if we don't know their names or anything about them. If you knew they have four sisters who each serve in the military and a father who served for twenty-eight year despite two fairly serious wounds before they went off to serve how would you feel?

If you know they tease each other because some of them out rank the others, (but that's okay because everyone knows a lieutenant is only as good as her sergeant) and you know their grandfather's story, how can they still be strangers whose fate you don't care about?

I didn't find out what my taxi driver's name was, or the names of his five daughters, but I wish I did. If they are going to go over seas in my country's name, even if I don't agree with the reasons for it, the least I can do is know their names before they leave, not after they come back and it's too late.

Isn't it the least we all can do?

July 31, 2007

Nobody Listens To Coyote Anymore

It was one of those really fine afternoons where you can sit on the front porch and no matter which way you looked there wasn't much in the way of cloud or haze to stop your eye. Off to the West the line of the mountain was held in place by the sky at the top and the ground at the bottom.

To the East and North all you could see was flat prairie stretching away into the distance with the only interruption being the occasional scrub brush or the dips in the ground where a sinkhole had formed some time in the past. They'd filled in long ago, leaving just a slight crater scraped out of the surface. If He was in a good mood He'd call them acne scars. Catch Him in a bad mood and He'd start muttering about pox infested blankets that left scars even on Her face.

The good thing about living out here and being able to see as far as the mountains in one direction, or as far as your eyes let you in the two other directions He could come from, (there's no way you'd ever be catching Him coming along the South road), is that you get plenty of warning as to what His mood is going to be like.

If He was just trotting along with his tongue lolling out the way that it can, than you know things will go as well as can be hopped. But if there's any deviation from that than you can be sure there could be some trouble. If you weren't able to distract Him quickly enough you could wind up with anything from a bad trick being played on someone to war on your front porch.

So this afternoon when I spotted Old Coyote approaching out of the North, He was still some five miles away. But oh boy could you see that He was more then a little pissed about something. Fore warned is fore armed they say, so by the time Old Coyote arrived at my porch that looks out over the prairie in three directions, I had pulled up His favourite chair, made a pot of tea, and had His favourite cup filled with sweet tea. (Four lumps no milk)

"Hey" I said to that one" Sit and have some tea, sit and have some tea before it gets cold. Have some fry bread, I just made it, or one of those microwave pizzas – you want one of those – those microwave pizzas?"

But Coyote just continued to pace in front of my porch with His tail dragging in the dust behind Him. Boy He was one steamed Coyote. I'm wondering what I'm going to do about that, because there's nothing worse than steamed Coyote (although I've heard that Coyote pot roast is pretty bad too) and if He keeps pacing like that I'm going to have me a trench dug in my front yard.

"Hey" I said to that one again "You want to go inside and watch television on the Satellite dish –We can sit here at look at the T.V. Guide and find out we should be watching" I had put up the Satellite dish for Coyote because He wanted to watch Oprah and Jerry, and all the other funny shows they play during the daytime. He liked to talk to them and see if He could get them to talk back – sometimes He did and sometimes He didn't- get them to talk back that is.
But that one must be really steamed because He continues to pace back and forth –even the thought of back to back Jerry and Oprah doesn't seem to be penetrating His mood.. There being nothing else that I could think of suggesting to distract, I gave in and did what He wanted.

"Hey Coyote why don't you come over here and sit down; drink some tea, eat some special fry bread, and tell me what put the burr up your butt?"

You know what it's like to watch a friend get carried away sometimes and talk while they're drinking and eating? Well you haven't seen anything until you've seen Old Man Coyote try to drink tea, eat fry bread and talk all at the same time. He only slowed down after that first coughing fit almost made Him lose more than just what was in His mouth.

When He finally stopped spluttering and sneezing, and was no longer in any imminent danger of swallowing His tongue, He started again to try and tell me what had happened to make Him so upset on such a beautiful day.

"Nobody wants me" that one said "Okay, so I eat some sheep here and there, maybe the odd chicken or duck, but com'on you leave them lying around like that what do you expect from me I'm only Coyote? But it's not even the farmers and ranchers who've got me so angry and upset – they just playing their part. I try to trick them and they try to stop me from tricking them. That's good – I feel more alive on the days that I'm dodging shotgun pellets than I have in hundreds of years.'

He stopped talking this time to drink some tea, and eat some fry bread; He asked for and I got Him one of those microwave pizzas He like so much. "Don't burn your tongue on the cheese" I said. "Yeah, yeah, I never burn my tongue on cheese" He said.

After He had stopped moaning and crying about His poor burnt tongue for what seemed like forever but wasn't more then fifteen minutes, half-hour tops, I got Him to sit down again to try and tell me what was wrong. " Nobody wants me" He started off again, and I told Him he'd done that bit already, cause He can do the same bit over and over again and a story will go nowhere and you could sit there all week waiting for it to move.

"People used to tell stories about me, the tricky me, and all the smart things I'd do. How I made the world and all the great things everybody needs, and all the adventures that I had along the way. They learned how to be brave, honest, and true because of the things that I'd do. I was a great hero too many different people of many different faces all over the world"

Now wasn't the time to be telling Him, I'm thinking, that most of the stories most of us told about Coyote were as examples of what you shouldn't do. But He was right, in His contrary way, people did used to learn from Him how to be brave, honest and true – by doing the opposite of what He did in his stories. Coyote thinks something is a good idea, you'd usually be better off doing the complete opposite.

"But now people, they're just like sheep you know. They have people who tell them how they should think, what they should feel, and who they should believe. How they gonna' learn anything acting like that? Nobody wants to hear tricky tales of wise, brave Coyote when it reminds them of how they could be and not how they are.

They just want things easy now – give me this I deserve it they say. Nobody tries to figure out how they going to go out and get it and make it happen. If I had acted like that where would the world be today? There would be no world is where it would be today and how would they like that if they was just standing around on nothing with nothing to do? They wouldn't like it all I'm betting."

He stopped talking then, did Old Coyote. He picked up a piece of that microwave pizza and tested it with the tip of His tongue to see how hot it was. He remembered this time, and began to eat it all down.

Me I sat and stared at the sky as the light moved away to make room for the dark and thought about what He said. I thought about all the foolish things that Coyote had done in His time, all the trouble He had created for Himself and others, and all the tricks He used to try and get away with – how some worked and some didn't.

Whether my good friend Coyote knew it or not He was all of our worst characteristics rolled up into one four legged, drop tailed, long tongued, sneaky eyed, bundle of fur. He never learned from His mistakes, it was always someone else who was at fault when His tricks failed. He was always looking for the easy route and it nearly always backfired on Him.

If He figured out a way to make lots of kills at once it either ended spoiling before He could eat it, or Him not being able to get at it after it was dead. Everything was always about how to make Coyote's life better for Coyote. He never thought about anyone else. He was like a small, petulant, spoiled child who needed to always get His own way.

As we sat there the mountains disappeared off in the west as they turned the same colour as the sky andthe prairie stretching out flat in front of us gradually got smaller and smaller as the night sky came down to lay on top of it. Somewhere off in the distance one of Coyote's cousins started to sing his or her lonely song of love for the star who had stolen Old Coyote's heart all those years ago. He had been so foolish in love, and so beautiful. Sad and beautiful just like the song.

I could hear Coyote sitting in the dark breathing beside me, and we listened together to the night. I thought for a minute and then, "Do you want some more tea?" I asked the night beside me. I heard it sigh quietly and say with Coyote's voice, 'Thank-you"

More than ever the world needs Coyote, but we seem to be killing Him as fast as we can. Are we ever going to stop chasing our own tails and shooting ourselves in the foot?

July 30, 2007

Canadian Politics: Military Spending Part 2

One of the most lucrative contracts a private company can sign is any sort of deal they can make with a government. Not only do they know they will be guaranteed payment, supply contracts are usually long term. Whether it's supplying a ministry with office supplies or the janitorial staff with cleaning fluid you can usually be sure of your contract being renewed if you approach competence and the government doesn't change.

It's an accepted fact of life that somebody is going to hire their brother in law's firm to clean the toilets on Parliament Hill over a complete stranger. It's one of the ways that party loyalty is repaid the world over and not even an ethics commissioner would raise a fuss about it. But its supposed to be a different story when it comes to matters like multi year, multibillion-dollar defence contracts.

In Canada government's military contracts involve four separate ministries. The Department of National Defence (DND) sets out the specifications that the military requires from a particular piece of equipment; the Department of Public Works and Supply issues a request for proposals to determine a supplier; Industry Canada are asked to identify Canadian companies that could potentially act as sub-contractors for the production of required equipment and assess the regional economic benefits of each bid; and finally the Treasury Board finalizes the contract – they sign the cheques – and ensures everything is on the up and up according to their policies.

This may a sound a little complex, but what it is supposed to do is make sure that the bidding process is transparent and fair and that Canada is getting the best deal it can for the taxpayers money. But according to a recent report prepared for Canadian Center For Policy Alternatives called No Bang For The Buck the government of Canada has managed to arrange that more then 40% of the contracts signed in the fiscal year 2006-2007 were non-competitive. This information was obtained freely from Business Access Canada data available on Public Works contracts. (They do add the caveat that the government can and will withhold information about procurements that they consider matters of "National Security" – They can even re classify items after they have been released if they so desire as they have done with documents pertaining to the purchase of the Mercedes Benz "G-Wagon" troop carrier)

Instead of using the standard, bid on a tender and the company that can do the job best for the least amount of money winning the contract, the government has been using two systems which allow them to pre select a company of their choosing. Advance Contract Award Notices and Solicitations Of Interest And Qualifications are the two ways that the government has been able to circumvent its own policies concerning accountability during the procurement process.

An Advance Contract Award Notice notifies the public that a company has been chosen by the government to fill a contract. The notice is posted for fifteen days on the Public Works web site. At any time during those fifteen days, another company may submit a proposal showing how they could fulfill the requirements of the contract with their equipment better than the one the government has selected. Somehow or other they never seem to measure up to the one the government has already selected.

Or in the case of the Solicitations Of Interest And Qualifications procedure it's amazing how only one company seems to be able to make something just the way the government wants it. It's especially surprising when you consider they are all pretty much making the same thing.

Now although government claims that these practices both qualify as competitive bidding practices the Auditor General of Canada, Shelia Fraser, disputes that. In fact he states that her office made it's position on the subject clear in 1999-2000, "that Advance Contract Award Notices contribute very little to competitiveness". It appears to me that there are just too many ways for the government to manipulate the process to favor one company over another.

Of course that impression isn't helped any by some other information the No Bang For The Buck report reveals. Prior to his election as a Member of Parliament in 2004, Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor had been a lobbyist for twenty-six companies that sought government contracts. As a retired Brigadier-General in the Canadian army it should come as no surprise that a good many of them were companies who sought contracts with the Ministry of Defense.

That meant that in 2006 when he became Defense Minister he was only two years removed from lobbying that department on behalf of industry for lucrative contracts. Now there has been no evidence to implicate the minister in anything duplicitous. But the fact remains that he is in a position to influence decisions as to who gets awarded defense contracts, and the process for awarding the contracts has become far less competitive since he became minister.

The government has argued that it uses these methods as an attempt to speed up the process of acquiring equipment. They say that the equipment is badly needed for the soldiers in the field. If that were the case why have only 3% of the contracts been designated with the "Extreme Urgency" label that can be used to justify limited competition? Or if the materials are so important to our soldiers in the field why will the majority of it not even be available to them until after they have been withdrawn from Afghanistan?

According to former Deputy Minister of Procurements at DND, Alan Williams, this process is actually often as slow if not slower, than normal tender processes. According to him, the time spent by politicians and bureaucrats arguing over the requirements to fill the contract and which supplier should be used can sometimes take longer then a bidding process. They also increase the potential for a lawsuit against the government by disgruntled losing companies because decisions are made in secret. (Currently Airbus Military is considering legal action after losing out on two bids through this system).

Of course, the other problem with non-competitive bidding is that the government is ending up paying more money and losing potential industrial benefits. A United States Air Force study on procurement showed that in a non-competitive bidding situation the average cost of purchase was 20% higher. The Canadian government has awarded contracts worth 16 billion dollars in non-competitive contracts, which means that we are paying out around $3 billion we didn't have to.

But the real kicker is the money we lose on industrial spin offs. If these were competitive, a bidder would know they would have to give something to sweeten the pot-thus ensuring contracts to Canadian companies. But with no leverage over them, companies are playing fast and loose with the rules of the game. The rules state that for every dollar awarded to a foreign company to do sub contract work a dollar has to be awarded to a Canadian company.

But what happens if a contract is awarded to a foreign government – well that doesn't count and that dollar amount doesn't have to be matched. When Boeing was awarded the contract for four C-17 planes and a 20-year service contract – they subcontracted the service to the US Air Force at a cost of 1.8 billion dollars. Because the US Air Force is not a private company that's 1.8 billion dollars in spin off industry Canada misses out on.

If Boeing had been in a competitive bidding situation with another company, and that other company was willing to sub-contract the service contract to a Canadian company who do you think would have been awarded the contract? At the least Boeing might have at least felt compelled to match those terms.

The Conservative Party of Canada rode to power on the backs of promising open and accountable government. The previous government had been caught in a horrible cover up over the misappropriation of taxpayers money and the Conservatives were going to be the new broom that swept out corruption from Parliament Hill.

Judging by their behavior in awarding defense contracts, I'd say their broom isn't much different from the previous government's, if not actually worse. Perhaps we should be holding a public inquiry into how the government actually does figure out which company gets which contract? It's taxpayers money they're spending after all, and aren't they the ones who said they're needed to be more government accountability for how taxpayer money was spent?

Sixteen billion dollars is a fair chunk of change and I think I'd like to know how they made their decisions, wouldn't you?

July 27, 2007

It's All About Guilt

I was going to try and write something profound about the role guilt plays in helping keep our society ticking over. You know one of those think pieces that analyses trends in people's behaviour and shows how that everything they do can be put down to guilt. But for the life of me I couldn't think of an opening paragraph to introduce the topic.

I guess I could have started with the family unit and how large a role guilt plays within that dynamic. How so many people use a blood connection in lieu of decent behaviour as a means of having people pay attention to them. "Family matters most" and count on guilt to make you drop everything for them at a moments notice no matter how they've treated you up until that moment.

Of course I could have just a easily started off by citing how most of North America's spiritual life is based on guilt. First there's the whole idea that we're all born guilty because of Adam and Eve committing that original sin with the apple. Talk about holding the sins of the father against the children.

If that isn't bad enough, how about this scenario: God sends down his only son and sacrifices him for our sins! Talk about your guilt trips – look what I did for you, so you'd better behave. Just in case we didn't get the picture there are all sorts of things you can't do without having to pay some sort of price or doing some sort of penance.

Some folk take it so far that they equate all pleasure with sin and believe the only way to avoid it is to work constantly and live a life of abject misery. They must feel guilty for having being born and I'm sure that they only had sex because they felt guilty about not going forth and procreating. Heaven forbid they enjoy it though because that would have been a sin and there would be a price to pay.

Religion is an easy target though, so I maybe could have talked about how government only works because we're made to feel guilty. For instance if you dare to disagree with something that the government decrees your made to feel guilty for not loving your country enough. Or if you don't agree with the war the government sends troops off to fight in they imply you're guilty of wishing the soldiers harm because you won't support them.

Or on the domestic front when they want to cut taxes and slash and burn social programming they will either find someway of making the poor guilty of stealing from the rest of the population or make you feel guilty for stealing the money out of your children's pockets. If we spend money today what will be left for your children?

It's not just the government who uses guilt against us. So do far too many environmental groups, human rights organizations, foreign aid fundraisers and anyone else with a cause. Hell I'm probably a lot more of an environmental extremist, believer in human rights and social justice then most of them and they piss me off with their attempts to make people feel guilty in order to change their ways, give money, or whatever they want them to do.

What's the point of making some poor guy who needs to drive his barely working vehicle so he can go to work and feed his family feel guilty for polluting? How's that going to change the world or do anything to make it a better place for his kid or grandkids? It's not any one individual's fault that people in Africa are starving to death or dying of AIDS and whether or not they contribute ten dollars isn't going to make a bit of difference.

When they show you pictures of starving orphans living behind barbed wire in refugee camps and say you can make a difference they might as well be saying it's your fault if they continue having to live like this. Not only is that unfair, it is of course patently untrue. Hundreds of years of history lay behind the reasons for those children living in refugee camps and only a change in the so-called developed world's attitude towards the developing world will make a difference.

Now that I think about it some more I could also have talked about the reasons why we are made to feel guilty by all these different people. It's to cover up who the really guilty parties are. As that guy who worked for Clinton said, "It's the economy stupid", but probably not in the way you think.

Did you know that in the time since the great Depression there was only a very short period of real prosperity in the post world war boom in the 1950's? Since then there has been a gradual erosion of the middle class and more and more wealth and power has been accruing in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Governments can preach all they want about free trade and open markets making a better atmosphere for business which makes it better for all of us but they are only getting it half right.

While the workers are made to feel guilty for demanding basic needs like job security, environmental protection, and workplace safety businesses go where they want and rack up bigger and bigger profits everywhere around the world. They exploit natural resources, people, and environments until they have exhausted them and move on leaving worse poverty and political unrest in their wake.

Religions have long used guilt to control their people, and people in turn use it to control their families so that they will not run afoul of the church. In the twentieth century governments who are sponsored by businesses use it to ensure that their patrons have clear access to everything they need to make their profits.

Most of us really have nothing major to feel guilty about in terms of society, yet we are constantly inundated with messages from all sides insisting we are guilty of a multitude of sins. Listen to the way messages are delivered by politicians, preachers, and advocates and you can't help but hear the accusation in their voices.

Try telling yourself the next time that it's not your fault, or not the fault of whomever is being offered up as a scapegoat and see who that leaves you with to blame. It maybe that the Church is right and we are all sinners and guilty of something, but there are some who are guiltier than others.

July 11, 2007

Canadian Army Blocks Access To Information About Afghan Detainees

Well the Canadian armed forces have finally cottoned on to a trick the American Army has been utilizing since the beginning of their invasion of Iraq. The best way to make sure that everybody believes what you tell them is to suppress any evidence that contradicts your version of events.

Last spring there was a great stink raised about what was happening to Afghani people detained by Canadian soldiers. It turned out that our soldiers were being asked to turn over all detainees to the Afghan security forces even though they knew full well that the majority of those turned over would not be treated according to conventions regarding the treatment of combatants captured during a war time situation.

Detainees were being denied access to basic human necessities, forced to defecate in their cells, and tortured. At first the Canadian government said that the Red Cross was monitoring the conditions of individuals who Canada handed over. When that turned out to be false, and the agreement signed by General Rick Hiller, head of the Canadian Armed Forces, with the Afghan security forces made no allowances for monitoring the treatment of individuals turned over by Canada, the government promised changes.

You see not only was that behaviour a violation of the spirit of The Geneva Convention, it also was in direct violation of Canadian law. Any person detained by Canada or its representatives, in this case the army, can not be turned over to a foreign power if there is reason to suspect they will be subject to cruel and unusual punishment as defined by Canada's laws.

The fact that a Canadian newspaper reporter was able to reveal the conditions the detainees were being kept in through the simple expedient of getting a list of their names and then going to interview them was not lost on the Department Of National Defence (DND). So just as the government promised changes have been instituted that affects the army's dealings with detainees. They just might not be the changes people expected.

To give the government their due it's true they never said what the changes would be, but I'm sure most people figured it would be something along the lines of improved monitoring of conditions to ensure compliance with the laws of Canada. Instead the office of General Hillier has announced that all further requests for information about detainees captured by Canadian soldiers would be denied.

It doesn't matter if you phone them, ask real nice, or apply through the Access to Information Act they're not even going to tell you how many, if any, were captured. Why? Well because according to them revealing to the public how many Afghanistan prisoners Canadian soldiers have captured could endanger the lives of those same Canadian soldiers. (The fact that they are in Afghanistan endangers their lives too but that doesn't seem as much a cause for concern)

The Strategic Joint Staff, a new group set up to advise General Hillier, after reviewing all the information made public leading up to last spring's revelation has told the DND's Director of Access to Information, Julie Jansen, just what she can and can't release anymore for reasons of (All Together Now) National Security.

Information that is considered to be damaging to the Canadian Armed Forces ability to carry out its duties in battle includes detainee transfer logs, medical records, witness statements, and other processing forms. Gen. Hillier himself interceded to ensure that Canadians don't find out how many individuals are captured, such was his concern for the welfare of the troops.

When asked point blank if there was any proof that this information had compromised the security of Canadian Soldiers, DND spokesperson Marc Raider said that information couldn't be provided for reasons of operational security. Orwell couldn't have written it any better.

Interestingly enough all the information that has become so potentially threatening to soldiers in the field is the same information DND had no problem releasing in 2005/06 which led to the revelations of abuse of detainees by Afghan and Canadian forces (allegations that three detainees were abused by Canadian soldiers are currently being investigated). Professor Amir Attaran of the University Of Ottawa had been the one to make the requests for information and who had revealed the discrepancies between reality and what the Canadian government was telling people.

He contests the only way this information could harm Canadian soldiers is if there was evidence of wrongdoing on their parts. In particular if documents proved that senior military officers in Canada's military had played any active role in the proceedings, or even aided and abetted wrongdoing, it could be a matter of war crimes.

The professor also stated that it would be very hard for the military to justify in court blocking the release of information they had no problems with making public less then a year ago in some cases. A court of law might think that the defence offered by Lieutenant Colonel Dana Clarke of the Strategic Joint Staff, attributing the release of information at that time to the fact that the Forces had not been in a combat situation since the Access to Information Act came into play, a little suspect.

Ignorance of the law is no defence when you're caught breaking it, and considering that the Access to Information Act has been around for twenty-four years claiming ignorance of how it would affect your behaviour is a pretty flimsy excuse. In fact for a department where secrecy can be of such paramount importance not being familiar with those aspects of an Act that directly impacts on you amounts to gross incompetence.

Although that is troublesome, what should be of more concern is the reaction of the Military, and therefore this government to the whole situation. They were confronted with a set of circumstances that the people of Canada were unhappy about. Instead of taking steps to prevent the problem from occurring again in the future, they've decided it's better if nobody knows if there is a problem or not.

No one can accuse the Conservative Party of Canada of being slow learners, as they've shown themselves quick to emulate their idols in power to the South time after time. It was only a matter of time before they learned the tricks of the Pentagon when it comes to fighting that most hated of enemies during wartime, the press. What they don't know can't hurt you.

It's one thing in a time of war to not publicize troop movements and locations, that's only common sense and will hopefully give soldiers a better chance of survival. But to prevent the dissemination of information only because it reflects badly on your behaviour or to hide illegal activity is not just morally wrong it's also illegal.

In a democracy nobody is above the law, especially the military. Any suspicion of incorrect behaviour needs to be dealt with quickly and openly. Behaviour like this from the Department of National Defence dishonours the memory of the men and women who have died in this or any war by putting their actions under a cloud of suspicion.

That is the worst injustice of all.

July 8, 2007

Books And Music: Variety Would Spice Up Our Lives

I know it looks like I do a lot of reviews, mainly music and books, but the truth is I could probably be doing double the amount that I do now. If I were to review every CD, book, or DVD that was sent or offered to me I'd have to be posting twice a day just to keep up.

I sometimes wonder if I, basically an amateur who does this for fun, receive this many offers of review material, how many are the people who get paid receiving? Since some days I receive as many as ten such requests, either by the item showing up in the mail unsolicited or via an email offer, the potential boggles the mind.

It really makes wonder how the record companies and book publishers do business. What exactly is their idea of quality control? Do they work under the assumption that the more items released or published the more chance that they will luck into something people will want to buy? For all their talk about artistry and demographics there is more than a slight whiff of an infinite number of monkeys trying to produce Hamlet about their marketing methods.

Of course once they think they've stumbled on something that strikes a chord with people they immediately saturate the market with it and similar items in an effort to make as much money from it in as short a period of time as possible. When people begin to tire of the product almost as quickly as the market has been flooded (somebody should really explain to them the principle of diminishing returns – the more of the same that is produced the less profit you make) the monkeys are sent back to the typewriters.

Of course it's the public's fault the pundits tell us, everybody has such a short attention span these days that they won't stay interested in anything for more then a nanosecond. Have they ever stopped to think that the problem might be that it's only by offering people real choices that they pay attention to anything? If everything sounds the same what is there to listen to after a while?

If variety is the spice of life then corporate music needs someone to pass them at least the salt, if not some basil, and maybe even some cumin. Their idea of variety is… well to be honest I don't know if they even know what it means. Making sure that the flavour of the month has a different cup size from last month's or that their hair is peroxided a different shade of blonde doesn't quite make it in my book.

I mean there is only so long you can look at a pretty young thing before you realize how damned annoying her voice is. It doesn't matter how many topless or bottomless photos of them show up on the Internet – they all just start to blur into one bimbo who can't sing after a while and if people start to flip channels or it's equivalent who can blame them?

The book publishing industry is just as bad as music; they think they're onto something that the market loves. So they pay millions of dollars in advances for true confession, daytime talk show style books without bothering with something as simple as fact checking. When that crashes and burns, instead of thinking about chickens and baskets, they sink even more money into the next big thing.

I could almost understand the first part of the approach, the monkeys and Hamlet, if they weren't only focused on finding the one big thing to be ground into oblivion in a year or two. Would it be so bad if when they found somebody or some group that resonated with people that instead of spending a fortune trying to clone them, they invest only what's needed to allow the original to continue its development?

That would leave them more money to continue to tap into the typing pool of monkeys and work with more than one band or author ensuring the public has real choices. I know it’s a bit of a novel concept, but why not let people decide what they want to read or listen to instead of dictating their choices for them?

I bet that if people were given real choices instead of more of the same on every page and in every CD you would find that their attention spans would improve. They won't all pick the same thing to rave about, but I'm sure you would see fewer one hit wonders and more bands and authors with good sales records.

Instead of industries having to wonder where their next "big hit" is going to come from in order to survive, they would have sizeable numbers of consistent sellers that more than recoup their initial investment in publicity and development costs. Every body would turn a tidy profit and more writers and musicians would make decent livings. There doesn't appear to be any lack of people out there trying to produce something of quality so lack of material to choose from shouldn't be a problem.

You don't need an infinite amount of humans to produce a variety of interesting music and writing, that's been proven many times over. You do need producers and publishers who are willing to believe that there is more than one way to write Hamlet and people would like to choose which version they read. Is that asking too much?

July 5, 2007

The Childhood Sexual Abuse Hangover: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

I've written about issues pertaining to suffering from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by childhood sexual abuse in the past and in doing so have touched upon my own personal history. Each time I've emphasised that I'm not looking for sympathy from anyone, it's just that I happen to be a handy example to use for the topic at hand.

There's still not a great deal written about men who suffered from being abused as children, or men willing to talk about it publicly because of perceived stigma's attached to it. Being raped by a man as child has as much chance of "making you gay" or making you les of "a man" a falling down the stairs would. Being rapped, especially being rapped as a child has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with exerting control over someone else.

It's all about power and being able to exert it without any fear of repercussions. How many young children, no matter what their gender, are going to go running to somebody to say that their father was raping them? The rapist usually makes sure that it won't happen through a combination of threats –"If you tell anybody everybody will know that you are lying and you'll get in trouble" and the use of cajoling lies –"Don't you love me, this is how all good little boys (girls) show that they love their father"

The last statistics I read about this subject were something like one in four young boys are sexually abused by somebody they know as a child, while the figure is doubled for young girls. Of course these are only reported cases, and I'm sure the figure for men would spike significantly if we were to know the real numbers.

Although the event is horrid enough as it is, the individual who is abused really begins to pay his heaviest price in adulthood when they begin to discover how fucked up they are. It's like a time bomb had been planted in their mental/emotional systems during the events and was set to go off when they had to start dealing with adult emotional stimuli.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse establish coping mechanisms based on what happened to them. Love, violence, sex, affection, caring, abandonment, and neglect have all become mixed together in their heads and they lack the ability to separate one from the other. They will either be continually waiting for the person they are involved with to either lash out at them or leave them.

This will lead to vastly different modes of behaviour; either they will be completely subservient in the hopes of making the other person happy enough that they will never hurt them or leave them, or they will find excuses to end relationships early in order to prevent themselves from getting hurt.

There is also the potential for a survivor to go the route of becoming an abuser and carrying on the work started by his tormentor on others. I'm eternally grateful that I have no personal experience in that matter so can't speak to it, although I can see how given the right circumstances it is highly possible.

Abandonment and neglect can leave behind such residual resentment that a person would feel that they were justified in doing anything they had to in order to get their own back. The world did this to me, it owes me, and so I'm going to do it back to the world. Don't get me wrong; I'm not excusing that behaviour just offering an explanation. I know from personal experience how resentment can twist your thinking and corrupt your heart.

Unfortunately I've not been able to avoid the other consequences of being a survivor and have had to deal with more then my fair share of shit over the past fourteen years. As it stands I'm still peeling back the layers like one would work to expose an onion's core. At times and element of frustration sets in, and I wonder if it will ever stop and if I will ever find something akin to peace.

Where I've been fortunate is that I have a very good doctor to work with and have been able to isolate the base elements that are the root cause of a lot of the emotional baggage that I'm carrying. So instead of being overwhelmed by a huge barrage of emotional symptoms, I have only a few things that I need to focus on that make me feel like there's progress.

This is so important for a person who is going through this type of experience, be they male or female, because it is so easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. A survivor is usually a series of raw nerve endings where almost anything is a potential trigger for an abuse memory. Reducing the amount of stimuli, or even learning to recognize what they are and what they do is the first step in being able to recover control over you're emotional stability.

From there it becomes a matter of understanding that your reactions are being controlled by events that happened in the past and aren't necessarily the ones you want to have in a situation today. If for example the person you love says "I love you" and your reaction is to wonder what they want from you, it isn't coming from you, it's coming from how you were treated when you were abused.

Realizing that is the major step in reclaiming you life and overcoming the effects of what happened to you. Gradually you learn how to have reactions based on present circumstances not on the past. It's a lot of work and it doesn't happen overnight; reactions you've had for thirty plus years are not going to disappear on demand. But at least now you know who you are capable of being and have the means to become that person.

This is not easy work, nor is it very enjoyable; who likes to realize that what they've thought of as normal behaviour for years has actually caused no end of grief. I sure as hell didn't. But ultimately the feeling you'll have is one of immense freedom and relief.

So if you're still at the stage where every little thing, no matter how trivial, can send you into orbit, fear not, there is a means of escape and I'm proof that its possible. Find someone you trust who you can work with and learn who your really are and what you really feel. You'll love yourself for it.

June 30, 2007

Epic India At Three Months Welcomes Author Vinod Joseph

It was pretty much six full months ago that my buddy Ashok asked me if I would consider turning his personal web site, Epic India into an online magazine, and just about three months since we opened the doors. I think, in spite of my great admiration and respect for my old friend, if I had know what it was going to be like I might have mentioned some fairly unmentionable ideas to him and hoped the next time I talked to him his head wouldn't be filled with such foolishness.

Well okay that's not true, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into just from observing what the editors at Blogcritics and Desicritics have to go through on a regular basis. On top of that I'd also be doing a lot of the page and site design (although Banwari La did all the real work and still continues to this day to be the man we all run crying to when we can't get the toys to do what we want them to do).

There was also all the administrative work involved setting things in motion as well, and you'd be amazed how many little things you don't think of crop up – where do the contributors sign in for the first time for instance. That might sound silly, but we had never had to sign into the live site, because we were always working on the test site. When it came time to send out permissions to people I could only pray that the system would automatically send them a link to somewhere they could sign in

All things considered though it went pretty smoothly with only minimal bugs and nothing too serious. We've even been able to solve our spam problem and turn our comments back on after having to close them for a couple of weeks because of a deluge we started to receive. (Yea Banwari) But we ran into a problem that I guess has sort of taken me by surprise and left me feeling blindsided.

The contributors didn't want to contribute. On opening day we had about twenty people registered as contributors. I thought, that wasn't so bad because if everyone chipped in an article a week, plus me on a daily basis, it worked out to three new posts a day. A bit thin, but we were a new site with zero budget to advertise and no one with the time to do much about publicity.

But you know the old saying of you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink – while it seems to apply to a lot of writers out there too.Not only couldn't I get a number of my original writers to contribute at all, I'd get people writing all excited and asking me please could they be a writer at Epic India, and nothing, not a word, nada.

After a month of this I sent out a letter en masse with words of encouragement. After two months I sent out a letter saying those who had not published at all and didn't within two days would have their permissions yanked.

At least that time people made the effort to respond to my email and postings increased sporadically, and the number of writers decreased by the number who had never contributed. Even Ashok sponsoring a contest for the best stories about Indian Culture did nothing to increase contributions.

Then last week one of those things you dream of happening when you run an arts and culture site happened. Vinod Joseph, author of the novel Hitchhiker wrote me out of the blue and asked if I would consider publishing his new series of ten short stories for him at the site.

Let me see, would I consider publishing the work of an author whose name I could at least trumpet up and down the breadth of India, if not to the Indian population abroad as well, as being a contributor at the site? Oh heck, why not, I was sure we could squeeze him in somewhere once a week for ten weeks.

With Vinod's help I've been able to, hopefully, generate more interest in the site over the past week then in our previous three months. Not only did he offer his work, he gave me a huge list of email addresses for online and print press to properly publicize his participation.

Of course it also means we will be coming under a bit of a microscope for the next little while so I'm going to have be extra careful with my proof reading and editing skills. (Stop laughing out there, I'm getting better) I also hope that this will encourage some of my more reticent contributors to start writing more frequently, mainly because I know they can all do good work and they have a great opportunity now for a larger audience to take notice of them.

Of course I'm hopeful of a spin off effect from this and that we will attract more writers to the site who want to either contribute short stories or non-fiction articles of their own on a regular basis. But I'm also realistic enough to know that it will still take more then just one very special event to stabilize us. But it's a start and I can't ask for more then that.

Starting Saturday July 7th /07 Vinod Joseph, author of the novel Hitchhiker will be serializing his new collection of short fiction, A Taste Of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara at Epic India.com on a weekly basis for ten weeks.

Set in the fictional village of Simhapara the stories are slices of life far removed from the hustle and bustle of the big centres of Delhi and Mumbai. A Taste Of Kerala will offer readers a view of life that is a few steps removed from sacred "Economic Miracle" so beloved of the press and political leaders.

In his novel Hitchhiker Vinod Joseph proved he had the ability to depict the lives of people in rural communities without sentimentalizing or belittling them. Once more he will offer readers an opportunity to see a different view of India than often offered. Ordinary people getting on with the business of living their lives as best they can in a world that is changing faster then they might be able to handle.

Join Epic India as we welcome Vinod Joseph and his latest work A Taste Of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara to our pages. You won't be disappointed.

June 27, 2007

Movie Review: A Purge Of Dissidents Dalek, Hazel XXL, and Jesse Olanday

So, there are these green guys with huge heads and big hands and feet, but with bodies made up of sticks. On their heads they've got what look like a set of really strange mouse ears – except they are big green circles that look to be as large as the head and well just odd. But it's the eye that gets you.

It (yep only the one) looks sort of like an eye in that there is a black pupil and the white stuff around that – but at the centre of the pupil it looks like the damn thing's head and ears are done up again in miniature. This time though there're three white circles of different sizes –with the biggest stacked on top of the two smallest.

For some reason the eye is down on the side of the face on what would be our cheek and the mouth runs up the side of the face in a big happy grin full of really pointy teeth all nicely interlocked. It makes you wonder what the hole in the forehead is all about and the beak like thing sticking out where we would have a mouth.

Come to think of it the damn thing looks like it's standing in profile with its eye and mouth pasted onto the left side of its face. I guess we could ask Dalek (James Marshall) about the nasty little critters since he invented them, but seeing as how he seems so reticent to give out information that won't be much help. Judging by their behaviour in a short movie called A Purge Of Dissidents I'd say the little buggers are out of control and have a knife to his throat in order to ensure their creator's silence.
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It's like some damned latter day Frankenstein thing, you know! Except this time it's a wigged out liberal artist, and instead of being locked up in some laboratory in the hills of Transylvania he's holed up in a studio in the wastelands of Los Angeles California. No bloody wonder they call it the city of Lost Angels if weird shit like this goes down. It's bad enough with Hollywood there, but at least its contained..

But these weird little Space Monkey dudes (I suppose Dalek thought the name was cute and all, but little did he know they were making a monkey out of him) they could be anywhere at anytime. One thing is for sure, if that little excuse for a cartoon movie those depraved, green skinned gnomes put out is to be believed, they is fixing to cause us all sorts of trouble. They could make all the ay-rabs and their liberal supporters at the U.N. look like a dream compared to the kind of havoc the monkeys are prepared to unleash.

Now if you're wondering how I know about all this it's because some God Fearing soul must have risked there life to send me a copy of this so-called cartoon the little ghouls are putting out. Not only is there a DVD, but they've enclosed blueprints for others out there to create them disguised in the form of drawings and sketches. Sure it looks just like any other storyboards for a cartoon movie, but I know there has to be more to it than that.

They must be hoping some other drugged up, left liberal, artsy type will see them and create more of them. The CD must be some sort of activation code because it's nothing like any music I've ever heard before. Those aren't songs they are a sonic assault upon eardrums that I just know weren't meant for humans to hear and I'll bet their like encouragement to the little beasties.

Why else would they include a CD of the music from the film if it weren't for some nefarious anti-establishment reason? Oh sure they say it's because they have extra "songs" on it that were left out of the movie, but they're not fooling anyone. Did you see the face on that guy (he calls himself King Buzzo of the Melvins), who wrote about making the music? If that’s not somebody whose mind is controlled by aliens I'll trade in my National Security Badge right now.

Him and that other one – Haze XXL – I mean what kind of person would willingly call themselves that – come to think of it – what kind of person would call themselves Dalek either. Maybe they're not so innocent after all. You don't like to think that young people in America could go so bad and become one with the forces of evil and darkness but just look at some of the titles of the different chapters in the Cartoon feature. We better hope it's mind control we're dealing with or we could be in deeper trouble then we thought.

I can tell you're still not convinced about the serious nature of the threat are you? Well maybe if we examine Exhibit A, the DVD, a little closer you'll start to get the picture. Take a look at the chapter titles; right off the bat with chapter one they tell you point blank what they're all about. "The Ascension Of The Anti-Christ" is a bit of a give away don't you think?
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It only gets worse from there – what are we supposed to make of a title called the "Emperor Smokes Crack" which ends in a pool of blood so deep that the bodies float away. Now I've got nothing against violence, nothing wrong with it in it's proper place. Like a good Arnold movie where he's blowing away rag heads by the score, but this was just sick. They were wielding knives and a mallet like they were going out of style and blood was gushing everywhere. What sort of sick mind would depict violence like that?

Every single damned chapter is full of violence, each scene as sick as or sicker then the one before it. But the killer, so to speak, came about half –way through when they stopped any pretence of innocence with the piece of work called "The G.O.P. Will Set Me Free". For those of you to lame to know, that stands for The Grand Old Party, or The Republicans. (We like to call it God's Own Party but that's kept quiet, the higher ups think it would raise to many hackles among the rich Jews who they've blackmailed into supplying us with money. Oh for the days when America is Free and we can stand up and be proud of who we are instead of kowtowing to the non-believers)

I tell you this one had me reaching for the 9mm to blow away the television screen, would have to but the wife stopped me just in time. The nerve of the little shits desecrating the holy red, white and blue, by using it in their sick little games and having it become a weapon of mass destruction in the shape of a top hat like our dear Uncle Sam wears.

But the worst was yet to come; if I had known what was left I wouldn't have let the little woman stop me from blowing away the television. "The Second Coming" is what those little abominations call the last two chapters but they bore about as much relationship to what will happen when Our Lord returns as beer does to wine. I was so shocked by what I saw that I almost forgot to be angry.

There's the one scene in particular that galled me the most. One of the little buggers is raining down death and destruction with a mounted machine gun. Nothing wrong with that of course but the inscription on the side of the weapon says "The Baby Jesus". At one point he runs out of ammunition and "The Baby Jesus" gun proceeds to suck him in and shoot him out as bullets.

That's what put me over the edge and told me something truly dangerous was going on here and if we didn't do anything to stop it we could be facing some serious trouble. These little monsters, whether under their own volition or the control of one of those "artists", are out to destroy our values and those things we hold dear as God Fearing Republicans

All the proof of their subversive nature is there for any to see if they want to, all they have to do is open their eyes and watch A Purge Of Dissidents and they'll get the picture. Its little runts like this Dalek character that have made it possible for shit like this to happen. Only if we are constantly vigilant will we be able to prevent those little Green Space Monkeys from having their way with us.

June 19, 2007

L'Art Pour L'Art (The Art For The Art)

When you've worked in around the arts for most of your adult life you get used to the occasional odd glance from people when you tell them what you do for a living. There's still a great deal of suspicion on the part of the general public as to the legitimacy of the arts. Not just as a career choice either, the whole idea of creative expression unsettles a good many people.

Now I can't really blame them, especially here in North America where we don't have the cultural traditions of Europe. Sure we have art galleries that display some of the finest work in the world, and North America has produced and continues to produce artists of the highest calibre in all media. But those people, for the most part, have succeeded in spite of their environment, instead of because of it.

Our antipathy to the arts is deep-seated; it's not something that just sprang up over night. It is an ingrained aspect of North American society; deeply rooted and firmly embedded since the first Puritan set foot upon our shores.

The story we're told is they came here seeking freedom from religious persecution. What's probably closer to the truth is not that many people were thrilled with their brand of austere Christianity. Puritans were probably the originators of every cliché you'd want to hear about the merits of hard work from sun up to sun down until you died (except on Sundays of course) and went to heaven to receive your eternal reward.

Life on earth was not meant for pleasure or for fun. We're here to repent for the sin of Adam and Eve so we could pass muster to get into heaven. The idea of doing something for purely aesthetic reasons wouldn't even have occurred to the Puritan and they would have thought anyone who did so misguided at best, an evil sinner at worst. People who genuinely believed that "idle hands were the devil's playground" the idea of taking the time needed to think about writing a poem or contemplating the play of light and shadow in preparation for a drawing would have been as foreign as cannibalism is to you and me.

This belief system is core of North American society to this day. Why else would people work themselves into early graves by slaving long hours at jobs they hate or don't really care about? Sure now they don't have to wait until going to heaven for some of their reward and there are all sorts of material gains they can accumulate. So doing something just for the sake of doing it, with no guarantee of a tangible pay off, is just as strange and alien to them as their Puritan forefathers.

Of course suspicion of the arts has gone beyond that by now and has become so deep seated that most people don't even have a rational explanation for their not being interested. "Only fags do that shit", "It's stupid", "What's the point", and "It's boring" are more likely to be the response these days. Which, although far preferable to being burned at the stake for being a witch, means that the arts still have a way to go before they get a measure of general acceptance.

L'art pour l'art, the art for the art; or as we have transliterated it, art for art's sake is a motto that even a good many artists have trouble accepting in our society. They still feel they have to justify the fact that they are creating something unique by applying a symbolic meaning to it for people to hold on to. Even if it is something ridiculous and inane: "The white on white is indicative of the stark realities and choices we face in everyday life – look at the texture of the brush strokes – their agitation reflects the anxiety we feel…" well you get the idea.

Certainly artists create pieces of work to evoke an emotional or intellectual reaction from the reader, the listener, or the observer. But no one can predict how different people will react to the same object. Everyone will have a different reaction based on their own life experiences and backgrounds. That's the beauty of art – it's innate ability to evoke spontaneous, nearly instinctive, reactions from people.

It's also what people fear the most about art, its ability to speak directly with anybody and everybody who comes in contact with it. Whether it's an entire audience being moved by a stirring anthem like Beethoven's Ninth Sympathy, or a single person reading a line of poetry that moves him or her, their understanding of humanity's potential will grow.

Art makes a lie out of the expression the sky is the limit. It has the capability to expand and extend our horizons to the furthest limits of our imaginations and beyond even that. Is it any wonder that in totalitarian states artists are tightly controlled if not forbidden to produce work? Books are burned and paintings banned because they are said to be a corrupting influence on the minds of the populace, as if people can't decide for themselves what they like.

Art needs to be a communal experience, with the artist offering up his or her vision to the audience for them to appreciate and interpret on their terms. Together they define not just a particular piece, but the premise of artistic creation. Because for each of us the experience will be different, the totality of the community is maintained. Removing our right to reach our own decision on what a piece of art means takes away one of the key elements of the experience, trivializes the process, and ends the life of art.

"The art for the art" is already an alien enough concept as it is in North America. If we remove the area that involves the observer from the process it becomes just another static form of entertainment that does nothing for us aside from providing a distraction.

For an environment that has not been the kindest to the arts, North America has produced some brilliantly talented geniuses in all media. By simply allowing them to be and continue what they've started, by allowing the nascent community of art to continue to take root within our cultural soil, we will ensure, at the least, that we always have artists, art, and people wanting to view it.

Any moves that curtail any aspect of it will surely cut it off at the roots or worse. We've already got enough to answer for as it is, lets not also have the death of art laid at our door.

June 18, 2007

Three Little Words - "I Love You"

I love you. Isn't it amazing how three little words can have such an impact? What other words in the English language do you know that can bring a conversation to a complete standstill in quite the way those three single syllable words can? I hate you delivered in just the right tone comes close, but even they don't have the bone jarring, hitting the brakes hard effect of I love you.

A couple, for arguments sake let us say a man and a woman, have been seeing each other for some time. They've discovered they have a lot in common and really enjoy each other's company. They've gone to bed a couple of times and the sex has been good. All in all things are, as the books say, developing.

Yet the first time one says I love you to the other – and no matter what guys like to think it's as likely to be the man as the woman – almost inevitably it will be followed by a long pause. Of course a lot depends on the timing, there's a big difference in saying I love you in the heat of passion from blurting it out while doing dishes.

While you can sort of gloss over it in the former circumstances as being caught up in the moment, in the latter there's no escaping the consequences of truly meaning what you are saying. Saying I love in the middle of doing something as prosaic as the dishes has infinite more depth of meaning than when in the midst of sex. It's a definitive declaration of devotion not coloured by passion or lust.

Which is of course what brings about the aforementioned sudden stoppage in conversation. Sometimes it will end quickly and be followed by hugs and joyful tears. Other times it will be followed by a pause that you can drive a truck through, stop and unload it, refill the gas tank, and climb back into the cabin before a vocalized reaction is forthcoming. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure is unnerving to sit through before the other party bursts into a big grin or at least says "I love you" in return.

Of course if the silence stretches just that little bit too long, and then continues for a little more after that, it's usually a sign that the other party isn't as ready to make that declaration with the same amount of feeling. An "I love you too" might eventually be forthcoming but it there is a conditional quality to it that is inescapable.

There's more than semantics involved in the differences between being in love with someone and loving someone. The general consensus seems to be that to be in love implies a singularity of devotion while loving implies nothing more than a general affection. Friends can love friends, but that doesn't mean they are in love with each other anymore than a sister and brother are in love.

It all sounds pretty darn confusing doesn't it for such a simple little phrase like I love you but that's just the beginning. It's absolutely astounding the many uses that simple phrase can be put to. While it may sound like a simple avowal of affection it seems to get utilized for other, less savoury purposes, quite often.

The use of "I love you" in emotional blackmail is one of the more common occurrences of this phenomenon. Not to be confused with guilt, emotional blackmail is used by nasty, manipulative people in order to ensure that world revolves around them continually. In order to successfully utilize emotional blackmail one must be completely without scruples and selfish beyond belief.

A petulant "I love you" that implies there is no possible way the other person can actually care for you as deeply as you do for them is a wonderful tool to use for emotional blackmail. It infers that if the other person really meant their "I love you" they would hasten to oblige you with whatever you wanted as proof of their devotion.

Not quite as subtle as emotional blackmail the ever-popular guilt trip is nearly as insidious. What it lacks in nastiness is more then compensated for by its pervasiveness. Used in situations where you need to get the emotional upper hand on the other person. Your use of "I love you" should imply a "but" preceding the phrase in order to create the proper "how could you do this to me" effect required to induce or accentuate guilt.

We human beings are complicated creatures, creating ties that bind us together. While ostensibly claiming they are based on love, a great many are based on expectations and obligations. These in turn create roles for us to play and duties to be fulfilled in order to be able to say, "I love you". The dutiful wife who shows love by preparing supper for husband who shows love by bringing home money are two obvious examples of this.

Even though those two roles have fallen pretty much out of favour there are many others that still exist. It's these constructs that create the means for three simple words to be used as weapons. We all have some preconceived notions of what "love" is supposed to be and what is supposed to happen when we are in love. The majority of those ideas have been formed by observing what's around us.

Failure to deliver on that promise of ideal romantic bliss, or whatever it is we are looking for, will result in resentment and jealousy. In turn that will result in the games I've described above as people try to make their roles work. Somehow we have construed love to mean that a person owes you something in return for you loving them. Do this for me because I love you is emotional blackmail and a direct result of that belief..

Instead of acting as though loving somebody entitles you to demand things of them shouldn't it be the exact opposite. If you truly love somebody you are grateful to them for being in your life and demand of yourself what you can do for them. In turn they will do the same for you. A loving relationship shouldn't be about coercion, it should be a reciprocal arrangement with equal amounts of give and take flowing both ways.

I love you are three of the most potent word in the English language. It's only unfortunate that too often it is for the wrong reasons. Isn't it about time that we leave behind the idea that saying I love entitles you to something in return? I thought only prostitutes were paid for love.

June 15, 2007

The Age Of Avoidance

Through out history Western civilization has looked back upon itself and named certain eras. There was the Hellenistic Period, (which has nothing to do with Helen of Troy but a lot to do with Alexander the Great who was a Macedonian) followed of course by the Roman Empire. We went down hill for a while after that with the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, but started to perk up with the Renaissance.

Almost every major European power had a "Golden Age" somewhere between the 1500's and the 1700's, although never simultaneously. There was the Age of Reason, which by our standards probably wasn't very reasonable, but relatively speaking it was the best the West had achieved to that point. After that things got a little confusing as we started going in quite a few directions at once so it was hard to give a title that would encompass everybody at once.

There was the age of Nationalism which began with Napoleon and pretty much has been ongoing since, but really peaked at the end of the 19th century when Germany united for the first time and Italy threw off the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War one of course we had a lot of the small countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans being carved out of various former Empires: Latvia, Estonia, Poland, what was then Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

Of course the 19th century also marked the beginning of the end of us being a mainly rural, agrarian based society with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the need for a large labour force to work in the factories. Although never recognized with the honorific of an age, nothing has had more influence on making us in the West what we are today, for better and worse, than the Industrial Revolution.

It allowed for the rise of a merchant class, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, the stock market, free markets, and any of the other isms we all love to label things with. But there has been a dearth of Ages in that time. The only one that caught on at all was the so-called Age of Aquarius that was being preached about in the 1960's by folk who had serious hallucinogen habits.

But I think that we here in North America have finally done what no others have been able to accomplish in almost a century; establish a way of life that is so ubiquities as to deserve the title of Age. Ladies and Gentleman I would like to welcome you to the Age of Avoidance.

No age before us has proven so adept at turning a blind eye to the realities of life as we have. No matter how glaringly obvious an issue is we have perfected the ability to not see what is right in front of our faces. From our governments on down to individuals we have devised more and more ingenious methods of not dealing with our own shit.

Can you think of anything else that would explain the proliferation of New Age religions? What better thing to offer people if their lives are going down a sewer than a guarantee of peace and harmony? Come to the light and avoid the reality of what is causing you to have nervous breakdowns and to chew anti depressants like Smarties.

You can buy books on how to get your own personal Guardian Angel who will watch your back as you go through life. There are ones that will bring you abundance, and others who will help you get lucky; in fact there is probably a Guardian Angel for every aspect of your life that you're willing to dish out money to protect.

This way you can avoid dealing with any nasty personal issues you may have. Who needs to confront their demons when they have a Guardian Angel? They take care of everything for you and you can on with your blissful existence and just wait for the abundance to roll in.

Of course we all have avoidance techniques; anyone who lives in a big city has long ago learned how to not notice the folk that line the streets with their hands stuck out for spare change. If it gets too bad you can be sure that city council will create a bylaw outlawing homelessness so that anybody without a permanent address will be either thrown in jail or shipped out of town. Homeless problem, what homeless problem?

Of course there are some problems that can't be avoided like how much its costing you to fill your forty gallon gas tank on your all terrain pick up truck that you use to drive to work every day. You sit and fume about it every morning in the traffic jam on the way to work and watch the sky turn brown as the sun comes up. Two cents more a gallon today, what's a person going to do.

Oh well American Idol is on tonight and the competition has been intense this time. At least there aren't any scandals about judges sleeping with contestants. Boy that Simon Callow really gets you steamed though, he's such a prick. But the music is surprisingly good for amateurs. You used to sing back in high school with a band and were pretty good…better then that guy who won last week anyway. Shit maybe you should enter next time.

Television is full of reality shows about unreal situations because no one wants to deal with reality. Hell the government doesn't want to deal with reality why should the population? Everything is great they say, the economy is booming. Then why are less people earning more and more people earning less money then ten years ago? What's so great about that?

As a continent we don't deal well with reality and when the real world comes knocking it finds us woefully unprepared. We have technology that allows us to do miraculous things but we use it primarily for mindless entertainment that keeps us from thinking about the world beyond our living room. If reality ever shows up on our 52" high definition television screen with surround sound all we have to do is find the right button on our remote to change our perception

Tim Leary suggested society should "Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out". Somehow or other what we've done instead is to simply Tune Out. Welcome to the Age of Avoidance, where the credo is no longer it's who you know that matters, but, what you don't know can't hurt you.

June 5, 2007

Book Review: Mo Te Upoko-O-Te-Ika/For Wellington Viggo Mortensen

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be traveling all over the world; going where your work takes you? How much would you really see of what each place has to offer away from your workspace? Would the travel become a blur of light, colours, and sound that blends together with other travels of similar nature?

Do you become adept at picking out distinctive patterns in the shifting shapes that whip by you as your body is propelled by one means or another through or past them? Do those fleeting glimpses give any real insight into your new environs or are they just the revelations of illusion?

Tourists are packaged up into buses and shipped through countries spending an hour here and an hour there so they can say they've done France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland all in two weeks. What do they see and when they get home and develop the pictures they have taken why don't they recognise what's on the prints in front of them?

Usually it's because they have tried to preserve something static in an ultimately kinetic experience and what is still in the frame in unrecognisable. Nothing but bricks and mortar or wood and plaster captured within the neat frame of a 5 X 7 inch postcard that says nothing about where they were and what it meant to be there passing through.

MoTe Upoko-o-Te-Ika / For Wellington is a collection of reproductions from two exhibits of photography that Viggo Mortensen presented as a gift to the city of Wellington New Zealand in the year 2003 after the completion of filming for the Lord Of The Rings movies. The images that appeared in the exhibition were of the places, including New Zealand, which he had traveled to in the years directly preceding the show.
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The pictures that form the first part of the book are abstract representations of the places he has visited. The shutter has been left open allowing it to capture every iota of movement that can paint its way across the lens. Layers of texture and colour are painted on negative, and then given life under the enlarger as Mr. Mortensen brings us a glimpse of how fast the world can be.

In some instances he is the one standing still watching the world zip by, and in others he is travelling at speeds that match or are faster than our poor planet can turn. Is that what we are seeing in these photos, visions of speed blurring everything until all that's left is colours and streaks of light?

Abstract art in any medium presents the conundrum of what we are to attempt to take away from the images. Do we stand in front of it and try to guess what the artist's intellectual motivation was for the work, or do we let the colours and configuration wash over us and feel whatever emotions they generate?

Sometimes the artist doesn't give us any choice in the matter and the images are so powerful we can only stare at them overpowered by colour, light and design. Mr. Mortensen's work in this instance falls into that category as they explode off the page in their vividness. Galaxies swirl in whirlpools of beams of white light etched into blues and blacks. Greens, browns, blues, and whites appear in splotches looking like a satellite image of some mysterious coastline.

Either one of these combinations is enough to be stirring but to turn the page from one to the other is to be aware emotionally of the contrasting environments in the world; feeling the diversity of the planet instead of just knowing it. It's exhilarating, but also tinged with sadness seeing how ethereal it all can be.

At least that's what I felt. Someone else, somewhere else at another time might feel something else, which is one of the beauties of abstract art. They give the viewer the freedom to feel emotions instead of being overtly manipulated by sentimental attachments to figures or real situations.

The second half of Mo Te Upoko-O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is composed of photos that are more easily recognizable. Landscapes, forest groves, trees, and other familiar objects are the subject matter. Judging by the titles in first section of the book and those that are given to the more figurative photos in the second, they are all, if not of the same subject matter, have been at least taken in the same locales.

Some are from other series that have appeared in other books. The "Hindsight" sequence for example has shown up before, and here again offers views in tight circles that appear to be looking backwards, or from a distance at the subject matter even when in a tight close up. There is something distancing about this effect that makes them almost as abstract as if they weren't figurative and removes the photographers influence from the shot as much as it was in the earlier part of the book.

Mr. Mortensen has always described his work as being a means of journaling and recording what he sees around him. Whether it’s a photo, painting, or poem the objective is the same. With that being his goal his work has no ulterior motivation; there is no manipulation of set to make us feel anything in particular.

He looks, he sees something that attracts his attention, and he shoots it with his camera and the result is what you see on the page in front of you or on the gallery wall. In some ways he stands a lot of notions of modern art on their head in that his realistic imagery is far less objective than his abstracts.

With his abstracts he has to "stage" the shot more and aims for a desired affect. But his figurative images are much more "of the moment" in that he is only recording what he sees with no other objective, and leaves it up to us to interpret it to our heart's content.

Mo Te Upoko –O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is an opportunity to see the two sides of Viggo Mortensen's photography, the abstract and the realistic, and reach your own conclusions about which you find more effective emotionally, artistically, and visually. Each has it's own unique perspective to offer on the world and each has something different to offer the viewer.

Like all items from the Perceval Press catalogue Mo Te Upoko –O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is half price until June 17th/07. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to explore the variety of works that Perceval Press has to offer before this deal disappears.

May 18, 2007

Book Review: Cake Or Death Heather Mallick

It was a few years ago when I first was introduced to the joys of a Heather Mallick column. This is not to be confused with a Doric Column with a cap that supports old Greek ruins, but a collection of around 900 words that was written usually in a fit of pique by a woman writer for The Globe And Mail newspaper in Canada.

On alternate Saturdays I would eagerly click the generic link "Columnist" on the newspaper's home page (they very rarely gave her a name link maybe hoping people wouldn't find her so as to cut back on the irate letters to the editor) and jump into her pool of righteous indignation. It was wonderful – somebody was actually writing about all the issues I would have written about and in a style that made me weep with envy.

Not only was her wit so acerbic that it could eat through the walls of the Teflon uber-bunkers that politician, pundits, and other spewers of lies, and garbage live behind, but she could also break your heart with her minimal description of real misfortune. She doen't have a drop of sentimentality in her blood, just real emotion and a formidable intelligence.

When she had occasion to turn upon herself and remark upon her own idiosyncrasies it wasn't to enlist our sympathy or even out of some masochistic need for public self-humiliation. It was more along the line of showing people how easy it was to admit to your humanity and to revel in your own eccentricity. Who needs to be the same as everyone else – even if it's only in the way you've planted your rows of flowers this year – it is still a statement of your uniqueness as an individual and you should be proud of it.
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On occasion I would be moved enough by one of her writings to email a commentary or words of approval. To my surprise she actually would answer her mail, and not just with a thank-you for writing form letter either. I was beginning to enjoy our sporadic correspondence and I think she was beginning to recognise the name at the end of the letters when all of a sudden it ended.

A polite form letter informed me that she was no longer able to answer her mail as she was writing a book and she hoped I'd (and everyone else I assume) understand how she just couldn't spare the time anymore. I was a little disappointed but that was nothing to what was to come.

One Saturday as usual I clicked over to the Columnist section only to find her gone. There was no notice, no hints as to her whereabouts, nothing. It was if she had been abducted by Aliens or worse spirited away by some secret government plot to abolish free speech. Of course it was something far scarier – she was on publicity tour for her first book Pearls In Vinegar: The Pillow Book Of Heather Mallick.

Maybe it was some dark recess of hidden resentment, or the fact that I was broke, but I never got around to either buying or reading book one. Now that Knoff Canada has released Cake Or Death, her second collection of essays on modern life I decided to let bygones be bygones (the nice people at Random House Canada sent me a review copy) and see if she's changed at all in her new digs.
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Will she have moderated her tone in the hopes of increased sales? Will she stop accusing Tony Blair of being the most duplicitous man on the planet and describing George Bush as the ultimate spoiled rich boy in the hopes of attracting the moderately well heeled to shell out the necessary readies to buy her book?

I guess Heather figures there are enough people out there (here) with as highly tuned sense of outrage as she has because she has not moderated her tone a whit. Oh certainly she might spend some time ruminating on the finer things in life. Those that allow her a respite from the reality of a world where in certain countries she's unable to leave her hotel room without crying because of how the people are forced to live.

I'm not going to deny her those two weeks in Paris because she is astute enough to know that the glamour she is revelling in for those fourteen days is an illusion, is in fact a glamour, a spell. If she were to live there all year round, as she occasionally fantasises, she knows that reality will exist in spite of where you live. That death and cake are always going to be our choices and the former in all its shapes is far more plentiful than the latter.

She makes no secret of her loathing for what she calls the unfeeling nature of conservative politicians who justify everything through greed and the bottom line. She declares her unstinting support for those people everywhere and anywhere who are appalled by what their leaders do in their name. She avows undying love for the Americans who have sent photos to the site apologizing to the world for re-electing George Bush. And she loves taxes. (Read the book)

She's opinionated, gutsy, bull headed, pretty much all the things that most people who use the words family values in a sentence despise in a woman. She has a marvellous conversational writing style that let you walk alongside her through the pages of her opinions. Even if the chat is a little one-sided in that you can't address her directly with your response at least you feel like you're involved and not just being lectured.

When I started writing articles, if I was attempting to emulate anyone, it was Heather. She sees no shame in expressing how something makes her feel, and doesn't hesitate in using herself as an example when the need arises. She's honest in a world where that means something and she speaks from the heart. Those are two attributes I will always admire and that still haven't changed an iota in her writing. Obviously fame hasn't gone to her head.

Readers in Canada can order a copy of Heather Mallick's Cake Or Death from Random House Canada or through some other equally reputable online retail outlet like Amazon.ca



May 13, 2007

Critic And Reviewer: A Difference In Intent

Over the years the definition of what is a critic and what is a reviewer have come to be identical. Even the majority of modern English language usage dictionaries reflect that opinion by using one to define the other: a critic is someone who write reviews, and a review is something written by a critic.

While it's true that more and more often there is little distinction to be made between the two in the way they are applied in most instances; newspapers, online blogs, magazines, television, and other venues of pop media, it does not mean there is no distinction. It's only because of the need to supply the users of the dominant popular culture with easily comprehensive opinions: good/not good; pretty/not pretty; or even evil/not evil, that the concept of what we call a review has even come about.

Historian Douglas Harper has written in the Chicago Manual Style's Online Etymology Dictionary histories of the words, critic and review that offer some interesting distinctions. Critic has only been in use since 1583 and was derived from the Greek word 'kritikos" meaning "able to make judgements" and a second Greek word "krinein" meaning "to separate, decide" Critical in the sense of "finding fault with something" didn't come into use for another seven years

Review according to Mr. Harper at the same source has been around for quite a bit longer, since 1441. It was derived from the middle French (as opposed to Old French or modern) word "reveue" meaning: " a reviewing, review" and the combination of two Latin words "re" meaning "again" and "videre" "to see" forming the French "reveeir" meaning "to see again".

If we look at some of the ways we still use the word review; reviewing the troops, to take matters under review, or to review the facts in a case, we can see the connection to its origins. However in terms of reviewing a book, play, film, or whatever, all it means is to go over again what happened. Unlike critic there is no implication of making a judgement on the item under review or reaching a decision.

Let's return to the modern day and if we were to look at a typical review what we are usually offered is primarily a revisiting of the events with a judgement based on those events. How well have the actors performed their roles, or how well has the author created his plot and other information pertinent to the item's presentation are reviewed and judged in terms of a standard based on contemporary expectations and demands.

The critical element of the process is reserved solely for saying how well an item has lived up to a pre agreed upon standard the reviewer uses as a benchmark against which to measure performance. This standard is of course subject to change dependant on the whim of fashion and the savvy of marketing departments, rendering it almost completely arbitrary and limited as a basis for judgement.

A critic on the other hand will spend less time reviewing content and more in placing the item in context with works of a similar nature so there is a basis of comparison for judgement. There is no point in judging a detective novel by the same standards that you would judge a book of poetry, or a Country music CD by those you'd use for an opera. Each of them have their own set of criteria that have been established by precedent over the years and it is the critics job to be able to understand enough about a genre to "judge" how well an individual piece fits within it.

That's even more important when dealing with pieces that are experimental in nature. A critic has to be able to understand not only what is being attempted, but how well the attempt succeeds based on the norm that is being broken with. A critic has to be able to inform his or her audience about any information that is pertinent to the item being critiqued.

With the development of a popular culture and a corresponding popular press to report on it, a means of validating the work through some system of assessment was required. Since there was no body of work to use as a history for basis of comparison, and fashions in pop culture change too quickly for that ever to be feasible for more than a small percentage of its output, the current system was developed.

Although pop culture has now been around a sufficient time for some forms, Jazz and Blues for instance, to evolve to the point where there is now plenty of history to draw upon, it hasn't changed the majority approach. The occasional specialist magazine or web site will have a critic who will take the time to inform their audience, but they are the exception not the rule.

While there is no doubt the review format is by far the more popular of the two currently, if one genuinely wishes to inform a reader of more then just your personal opinion, being a critic is the way to go. Although the distinction between the two formats is hardly ever made any more the difference is obvious.

April 28, 2007

Whose Terrorising Who?

Almost everyday the newspapers are filled with accounts of violent activity in Iraq. A car bomb here, a suicide bomb there, gunfire at a checkpoint, even an outbreak of outright hostilities on occasion. We know that the victims of these attacks are usually either Iraqi or American personnel serving in either the armed forces or security services.

The newspapers say that it is the work of faceless creatures called insurgents or even worse radical fundamentalist Muslims. They never offer any explanation as to possible reasons for these people to be fighting against the American forces that occupy their country except to say that they are insurgents or fundamentalist Muslims, or even scarier both.

In other words the only reason that they pick up weapons against the Americans is because of who they are, not because of anything that's been done to them. It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that for the ten years prior to the invasion the country got steadily poorer as the embargo and the Oil for food programs steadily stripped the country of any means of generating income to pay for infrastructure, health care, education, and other things we take for granted.

It doesn't have anything to do with hospitals being bombed, museums being looted, Iraq's natural resources (mainly oil) being sold into private American hands and the money from the sales mysteriously disappearing. The theory had been sell off Iraq's assets at bargain prices to American interests and use that money to rebuild the country.

If there had been any sign of hope, or progress towards rebuilding things might be different. But what are people supposed to believe when they read reports of hundreds of millions of dollars just going missing that was earmarked for rebuilding? An initial audit from one city showed just that happening and who knows how wide spread it's become in the interim.

What would you think if the people who were behind the violence weren't doing it out of some fanatical Muslim belief? What would you think if they were people who were reacting to their treatment at the hands of people they believed didn't give a damn for them or their lives?

Put yourself in the shoes of the average twenty something Iraqi for a few moments in the above circumstances. Now add into the fact that you're treated with absolute disdain in your own country. People who can't speak your language, who don’t understand or respect your traditions, constantly yell at you in a language you don't speak; telling you what to do and how to behave.

In your eyes they desecrate your places of religion, they act like your culture that has existed for thousands of years is insignificant, and in their eyes you are less than a person. It seems to you that for no reason at all they invade your house and kill your friends, if not your family, whenever the mood strikes them.

Doesn't anybody find it odd that a person whose father was put to death by Saddam Hussein has become one of the biggest opponents of the American opposition? Wasn't the point to liberate people like him from the tyranny of Saddam? If that's the case why have they, over the course of the occupation, taken up arms against the Americans?

Could it be because they are tired of the way they are being ignored in their own country? Could it be that although they are grateful for the release from Saddam Hussein, they would like to have some say in how their country is put back together? Maybe they don’t want all their natural resources sold off to the highest bidder so that when they do have self-rule their economy is in foreign ownership?

We like to say that the reason behind all the violence is outside forces like Iran stirring up trouble, or people who've been promised paradise if they die on the battlefield. Our politicians and the "Muslim Experts" will recite this information by rote if you push the right button. They hate we say, in shocked disbelief, as we shake our heads at the wonder that anybody could hate the glorious West with our sacred cows of material wealth and self indulgence.

Sometimes I wonder how so many people can have their heads that far up their asses and still be breathing? What reason have we ever given the Arab world, especially Iraqis to like us? Try putting the situation on the ground for the people living in Iraq for the past sixteen years together with the insurgent activity? Can you see any connection between the two? If not I'd say that Western myopia has gone beyond pathetic to dangerous.

Look you kick someone in the ass long enough and make them feel like shit, they're bound to snap sooner or latter. They don't need to be fanatical this or that, they just need to be ordinary human beings who have been pushed too far and live with violence everyday. You grow up in a world where everything revolves around bombs and machine guns you might start thinking that is the only means of problem resolution.

I'm the last person in the world to condone violence. But there are times I can understand where it comes from. The mistake the West keeps on making is that we are constantly pouring gasoline on a fire. We have to stop responding to violence with increased violence and begin owning up to our share of the responsibility for creating the situation and circumstances that led to the violence.

We in the West have to stop thinking that our way is the only way and learning to meet people half way. We need to start making an effort to understand other peoples instead of lumping them all together as "different". We are the new kid on the block in terms of civilizations and yet we act as if any other ways of being are at best inferior to ours, if not wrong.

Where do we get off judging anybody else and their ways of being? Even amongst ourselves we can't reach any conclusions about how best to live our lives, so how dare we try to impose anything on others. What gives us the right to do that anyway?

I don't support the activities of terrorists of any stripe; whether they have homemade bombs they blow up in cars that wipe out anybody who happens to be in the vicinity or they drop bombs from airplanes thousands of feet above surface of the earth that wipe out whole city blocks indiscriminately. But we need to stop thinking of the people who are called terrorists by our press as faceless beings to be dismissed as "fundamentalists" or "insurgents".

There are humans behind those labels and the quicker we start putting faces to them, the quicker we will be able to bring the violence to a halt. I may not approve of either form of terrorism, but I can understand one better than the other. If my country were invaded by a foreign power I might fight back in anyway, or with any means at my disposal too.

April 27, 2007

Book Review: The Sirens Of Baghdad Yasmina Khadra

You were eight years old when they invaded the first time. At that time your village was ignored. The tribe went on much as it had since even before they settled and gave up the ways of wandering the desert. Nobody cared for a little village made of mud and straw.

But Oil For Food and embargos take their effect and as you've grown to manhood your country has begun to disintegrate around you. Somehow your father managed to find money enough to send you to university in Baghdad, but one night during your studies the sky explodes and your future ends.

You return to your village and do nothing, because there is nothing for anyone anymore. The war hasn't come to your little village, but you and everyone else, watch it on television every day in the café. The talk is of resistance and self-recrimination.

"The Americans wouldn't have come if we had had the spine to get rid of Saddam on our own"

"They would have come anyway for the Oil; to pump us dry"

"They came to make sure that Israel stays the power centre of the region"
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The Sirens Of Baghdad, published by Doubleday Books an imprint of Random House Canada, is the latest novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (the pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul). Like his earlier works Wolf Dreams and In The Name Of The God Med. Khadra takes us into the world of the men and women who have been pushed so far by circumstances that they've ended up on the path of violence and vengeance.

For our nameless protagonist in The Sirens Of Baghdad the killing of an autistic young man by American soldiers at a check – point, the accidental bombing of a wedding party in the village that killed village elders, and finally a raid on his house looking for weapons by American troops who humiliate his father are what put his feet on that road. It wasn't so much the first two incidents, they were merely horrific and caused him to faint, it was the last one; the assault upon his family's honour that pushed him over the edge.
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An empty vessel, or a vacuum, will eventually have to be filled with something. When his one armed, elderly father is knocked down by a soldier and ends up laid out on the floor of the house with his genitals exposed (In the Bedouin tradition a son must never see his father in a state of undress, and to be exposed to his genitals is the gravest of dishonours) because he wanted to put some pants on to cover his nakedness, the floodgates of anger are opened and it streams in to fill the void created by hopelessness.

As the story develops and we follow our young man to Baghdad where he hopes to strike a blow against the occupiers, Khadra shows us in no uncertain terms how the American occupation of Iraq has driven the young men to a life of terror. It's the complete indifference to them as people or any sort of recognition that their culture and beliefs matter that turn them into killers.

"I wanted to set fire to the world and watch it burn" Is how more then one character describes how they felt when they left their villages to come to Baghdad in the hopes of joining the resistance. Our newspapers are filled with stories about fanatical zealots who are promised paradise in reward for their martyrdom when the truth is far different.

Most of them are simply young men who have no hope anymore,. All their dreams have been crushed and they no longer see any reason for living. If by their deaths they can bring some meaning into their life and regain a vestige of the self-respect they feel has been stolen from them and their country, they will.

Our young man connects up with people from his village in Baghdad who have become one of the "resistance groups" that blow up anything they feel like. Khadra doesn't paint them like heroes or martyrs; he describes them as people so full of anger that they don't care who they kill anymore. They want revenge on the world for what they see as the injustices served upon them.

At one point in their lives they may have been like our young man who abhorred violence to such an extent that he was ostracized as a child for being "womanish" and had fainted at the sight of blood. But now he idles away his time in Baghdad going to the scenes of